A defeated-looking JT Daniels grabbed his facemask in frustration and dropped into a squat. His second interception of the game was thrown directly at a UCLA cornerback without a receiver in the vicinity. The pick in the fourth quarter served as the nail in the coffin that gave UCLA the chance to seal the Trojans’ fate in a 34-27 loss at the Rose Bowl Saturday.
“Disgust,” Daniels said of the interception. “That’s inexcusable.”
The loss drops USC to 5-6 on the season and marks the end of a three-year winning streak over the Bruins, almost certainly eliminating the Trojans from bowl eligibility as No. 3 undefeated Notre Dame enters the Coliseum on Saturday. The game featured an attendance of 57,116 spectators, the lowest for a USC-UCLA matchup since 1950.
Senior linebacker Cam Smith, who played his last crosstown rivalry game, was disappointed with the result.
“It’s pretty crushing,” Smith said. “Leaving that stadium like that, some of the memories that we’ve had in there already — it’s pretty tough, but you gotta move on.”
The Bruins trailed for the majority of the second half, but edged out a 97-yard drive to take the lead with 10 minutes remaining. The score came by way of a 55-yard rush from redshirt junior running back Joshua Kelley, who ran through a gaping hole. Kelley finished with 289 yards on 40 carries and two touchdowns.
UCLA’s ensuing drive following Daniels’ second interception resulted in a field goal, and it tacked on another field goal later in the quarter to take a 34-27 lead with over two minutes on the clock.
On USC’s final drive, Daniels’ fourth down pass from the Bruins’ 29-yard line fell incomplete, sealing UCLA’s victory.
“I don’t think JT got caught up in the moment,” head coach Clay Helton said. “He made two errors in that second half that got us, but for his first time out there, he was going in the right spot.”
UCLA seemed to have the momentum coming out of halftime as the Bruins were steadily working downfield. But on a 40-yard stab to the end zone, senior cornerback Isaiah Langley intercepted quarterback Wilton Speight. The Trojans converted the following drive into 3 points after failing to reach the end zone.
USC went into halftime leading 24-21, but its performance was far from fluid. While the Trojans dominated the passing game with 218 yards to UCLA’s 114, the Bruins more than tripled USC on the ground (169-47).
USC drew first blood with a 46-yard field goal, but UCLA promptly took back the lead. The Bruins’ two ensuing drives resulted in touchdowns, putting UCLA up 14-3 early in the first quarter.
USC saw its fair share of preventable penalties in the first half. Most notably, the Trojans suffered an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Pili punched an opposing player’s helmet. Afterward, head coach Clay Helton yelled at Pili on the sideline, frustrated with his player’s poor decision-making.
The loss magnifies Helton’s job security, as USC is on track for its worst season since 2000. When asked if he would be returning next season, Helton deferred to Athletic Director Lynn Swann, but said that Swann gave him a hug after the game and said he would see Helton on Monday.
“I work my butt off for 24 hours just to try to buy another 24,” Helton said. “If you work as hard as you can and do the best job you can for your kids and for the university that you love, you have no regrets. And I don’t.”
His players shared similar thoughts.
“If you blame Clay Helton for that loss, then you have no idea what football is,” Daniels said.
USC will welcome No. 3 Notre Dame next week in its final matchup of the season, needing a win to make a bowl game.