Ajene Harris stared at the sky, running forward with his arms outstretched. The UCLA special teams unit bore down on him with typical intensity, shoving off blocks as they came. Harris tucked his arms into his body as a Bruin hit him square in the pads, but he was laughing, pointing to the other side of the field.
In slow motion, every occupant of the Coliseum — the fans, the players, the coaches, even the broadcast camera following the play — pivoted to the other side of the field, where sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman was barrelling towards the end zone. It became obvious in an instant that the play was a fake, that Harris had been overselling his play while Pittman calmly caught the ball and took off down the sideline. But at that point, there was nothing to be done.
The one player who hadn’t bought the play was the kicker, JJ Mollson, who hollered at his teammates to follow the ball before nervously chasing after Pittman and succumbing to a brutal block. Pittman jogged into the end zone, shaking his head, and the Trojans roared as the scoreboard lit up the first points of the game.
The trick play was a classic of pick up games and high school teams, but it’s not the kind of gamble that typically pays off in a Division I college game. It was even bolder to pull in the first quarter of a rivalry game that effectively decides the postseason prospects of the Trojans. But it gave life to the team, something that was scarce in the remainder of the game.
Despite the final score, the Trojans’ 28-23 rivalry win over UCLA didn’t feel all that victorious. Sloppy defense, missed opportunities and an often stagnant offense grinded the game to a sluggish pace. The Trojans remained undefeated at home and secured the Victory Bell for a year, but they continued to show the same weaknesses they have fought since the first week of the season.
“It was a really hard-fought game,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I don’t think any game is perfect but our kids did what was needed to be done to win a hard-fought ball game.”
Facing a defense weak on run protection, junior tailback Ronald Jones II shouldered the might of the offense in the first half. He was the only Trojan to run the ball in the first quarter, picking up 89 yards in the first half. In the second quarter, Jones, muscled his way into the end zone for a touchdown after slicing up the Bruin secondary with a catch out of the backfield. Yet despite his production, the offense struggled out of the gate.
The first half lacked the redemptive spirit that the team and fans had hoped the game would provide. This was perhaps best summed up by the final drive of the half, which was sparked by a strip sack by redshirt junior defensive tackle Malik Dorton that was recovered by redshirt sophomore linebacker John Houston and run back to midfield.
Darnold took over with a minute left. He tossed to redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. to pick up 15 yards, then lofted a dazzling pass to Burnett, who tapped his toe just inside the sideline to put the Trojans in the red zone.
The Coliseum rumbled with energy as redshirt sophomore quarterback Darnold took the final snap of the half with time expiring. On a blitz, he dodged two rushing linemen, then spun out of a hard tackle from a linebacker. But he was dragged down five yards short of the end zone, and stood slowly before heading into the locker room with a tenuous 14-7 lead.
For Darnold, this game was a long awaited face off with UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, one that was postponed last season when Rosen was injured weeks before the two teams played.
“It’s awesome to battle against a great player like Josh,” Darnold said. “Whenever we get the opportunity to play a great team and a great quarterback like Josh, you want to compete to the highest level. I think that’s what we did tonight.’
Although the home team pulled out the win, Rosen outflanked Darnold on the stat sheets, tossing for 421 yards and three touchdowns against Darnold’s 264 yards and solo rushing touchdown. Darnold also gave up an interception and almost coughed up a fumble in the red zone. As the game progressed, Rosen showed his comfort in the pocket, remaining composed despite taking pressure as his line broke down.
Despite solid play from Rosen, the defense came alive to start the second half. Marvell Tell intercepted the ball in the end zone, leaping a Rosen pass after the defense had allowed UCLA to march all the way into the red zone. On the next drive, redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins and senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu ate up back-to-back sacks to drag UCLA back 19 yards from their line of scrimmage on the opening Bruin drives.
“When the going gets tough our defense stands up,” junior linebacker Cam Smith said. “We’ve proven all year that we’re a great red zone team. When we get some pressure on a guy, we’re coming at all angles and it’s tough for any quarterback.”
But the offense often struggled to convert those stops into scoring drives. The team shifted away from the run game in the second half, giving Darnold more opportunities to throw. It paid off when freshman running back Stephen Carr snatched a swing pass, turned the corner around a blocker and dodged a tackler to take the ball to the five yard line. Darnold punched in a touchdown of his own, juking a defender and diving into the end zone to stretch the lead to 21-7.
But UCLA responded with another march, bolstered by Rosen’s cool passing under pressure. The Trojans still led by a touchdown, but it felt shaky, with the Bruins bearing down on any opportunity to level the score.
As the fourth quarter wound down, the offense struggled and stumbled in its attempt to score. With six minutes remaining, Darnold finally delivered. He hit Carr for a wide open 29-yard pass, and redshirt sophomore tight end Daniel Imahtorbhebhe grabbed a catch over the middle to move the chains into the red zone. A simple hand off to Jones up the gut of the defense gave the Trojans the touchdown and 28-17 lead they desperately needed.
The lead gave some fans the comfort to head for the exits with five minutes still remaining. But the Bruins continued to grind away, even in the final minutes. With under three minutes remaining, Rosen floated a 27-yard pass into the left corner of the end zone, but a failed two-point conversion kept the Trojans ahead by five.
With 2:42 remaining, the Bruins decided to take a risk — an onside kick. The Trojans scooped the ball up, downing it on the 45-yard line and ensuring victory if the team could bleed the clock. Jones punched in two first down runs to conclude matters.