Talk about a switcheroo.
The first 59 minutes of USC and UCLA’s annual cross-town battle Saturday qualified as a certifiable snoozer.
But boy did the sparks fly in the final seconds, when UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel called a timeout as USC attempted to run the clock out on a would-be 14-point victory.
That was all the provoking USC coach Pete Carroll needed. On the next play he called on freshman quarterback Matt Barkley to deliver a 48-yard touchdown strike to junior receiver Damian Williams to break open the game.
That gave the Trojans the 28-7 win in front of a decidedly quiet crowd of 85,713 at the Coliseum, but it also brought almost the entire UCLA sideline onto the field in what almost ended up in a brawl.
“That was just competing,” Carroll said in his postgame press conference.
Neuheisel said he didn’t blame Carroll for the decision to run a play-action pass with the Trojans up by 14 in the final minute.
Still, his players expressed surprise at the call that mirrored Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh’s choice to go for the two-point conversion two weeks ago against the Trojans.
“I was speechless,” sophomore safety Rahim Moore said. “They caught us off guard.”
That last minute demanded most of the postgame attention, but for much of the game, junior linebacker Malcolm Smith was the story.
He picked off a Kevin Prince pass in the first quarter and took it back 62 yards for a touchdown, providing the Trojans their only points of the first half.
Smith, who has missed three games this season because of a shoulder ailment, was also credited with 15 tackles in the game, a career-high.
“He was finally himself,” said redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Chris Galippo. “All year he’s been hindered by a few injuries and this and that, but this is the one game that everybody got to see the real Malcolm Smith.”
Smith also stuffed three UCLA plays for a loss.
“He was all over the field,” Carroll said. “He played a beautiful game.”
As a whole, the Trojan defense held the Bruins scoreless until late in the fourth quarter, rattling both UCLA quarterbacks all game long. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince and senior Kevin Craft combined to complete 18-of-39 passes for no touchdowns and three interceptions.
“We made too many mistakes, particularly on offense,” Neuheisel said.
It was a performance not seen from the USC defense in recent weeks. In their last five games prior to Saturday, the Trojans had given up an average of nearly 35 points per game.
“Defensively, it was huge to keep the score down,” Carroll said. “We were able to adjust and keep things in order.”
UCLA’s first — and only — score came with less than six minutes remaining in the game on a direct-snap two-yard run by senior running back Chane Moline.
That made the score 14-7, putting the Bruins in position to make a final push to tie the score.
But USC responded with a methodical nine-play drive capped by a two-yard touchdown run by redshirt junior running back Allen Bradford, using up more than four minutes of clock.
Bradford ran four times for 30 yards on the drive — for a total of 62 yards on 14 carries in the game — and served as a decoy on multiple Barkley passes.
“We threw it when we had to and we used a little play-action here and there,” Barkley said. “When it counts, those are the big drives that you really need.”
For the much-maligned USC offense, the possession was a bright spot.
“I was really proud of the offense — that was their best drive of the day,” said offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. “And we needed it. We had to take it down and get some points.”
And so the 79th meeting between the two teams ended exactly like last year’s, with the Trojans on top by a score of 28-7.
There will be no Rose Bowl for either Los Angeles school, but in what has amounted to a mediocre season for both, USC can again go home with bragging rights.
“It’s always good to beat UCLA,” Bradford said. “They play us tough every year regardless of whether they’re ranked or they’re not or what’s going in the season or how bad their record is or how bad our record is.”
Compared to other in-state rivalries across the nation, the so-called battle for LA has lacked in bravado since UCLA’s 13-9 upset over the Trojans in 2006. But the late-game antics this time around might have created something to look forward to next year.
“It was good to see a little controversy, I guess you could say,” Galippo said. “Every other rivalry in the nation is like that, and it was good to see that here.”