Aaron Hester looked to the sky, screaming at the top of his lungs as he ran alone across the field. It was a good scream ““ the best of screams.
The redshirt senior cornerback had just been a part of UCLA (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) football’s second victory against USC (7-4, 5-4) since 1998.
He ran, jumped and skipped down the sideline, soaking in the 38-28 victory, arguably the most meaningful during his time in Westwood.
“I wanted every ounce of the enjoyment I could,” Hester said. “I celebrated with my teammates, I celebrated with the fans, I had to take everything in.”
For Hester, the win was especially sweet. He was singled out and criticized all season long for habitual pass interference calls and poor play, but on Saturday, he was the star.
On the first play of the game, Hester intercepted USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley, which led to a UCLA touchdown six plays later.
“To be able to get that interception and convert it into points was big,” said coach Jim Mora, who was coaching in his first-ever game against USC. “It gives them confidence in the plan and confidence in themselves.”
That was just the start.
The Bruins added on 17 more points to go up 24-0 midway through the first half on touchdowns from redshirt seniors Johnathan Franklin and Joseph Fauria.
USC responded late in the second quarter, adding two touchdowns of its own going into halftime to make the score 24-14.
“I was concerned for the entire game,” Mora said. “Matt Barkley is a great player. They’ve got great receivers. Lane Kiffin is a terrific play caller. They’re going to score some points. They’re going to make some plays. They’re going to get some yards.”
UCLA received the ball in the second half, but heavy rain caused problems for offense, which culminated into one horrific play.
Redshirt freshman center Jake Brendel had a bad snap, which led to Franklin picking up the ball. Franklin then fumbled the ball, which was grabbed by redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, who was hit immediately and fumbled again.
After a short scrum, USC junior defensive tackle George Uko ended up with the ball in UCLA’s end zone to bring the score to 24-20.
“I was joking with (Franklin) earlier this week saying, “˜What if this game is an old-school, muddy game when the rain is pouring and you’re just out there playing football?’ Well that’s what it turned out to be,” Hundley said.
With momentum in USC’s favor, UCLA responded with a 40-yard drive and a punt that put the Trojans deep in their own territory.
After a three-and-out by USC, redshirt sophomore linebacker Eric Kendricks blocked a punt, which gave UCLA the ball at USC’s 33.
“(Junior linebacker) Anthony Barr got hurt so I went in,” said Kendricks, who also had 10 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. “Then football happened.”
But not just any football happened. Program-changing football happened.
Following that punt block, UCLA scored again to go up 31-20 and the Bruins held the lead for the rest of the game.
When the Trojans tried to mount a comeback late in the fourth quarter, the Bruins refused to budge. Barr sacked Barkley with 2:07 left in the fourth quarter, knocking him out of the game.
From there, USC attempted a field goal to pull within a touchdown, but senior cornerback Sheldon Price, Hester’s counterpart, blocked the kick and secured a victory.
UCLA defeated USC for the first time since 2006 and won the title of Pac-12 South champions for the second consecutive season.
But unlike last year, where UCLA only won the title because USC was ineligible to compete in postseason play, the Bruins will represent the South division as the undisputed best team. They went 5-0 against their division rivals, but more importantly, they went 1-0 against the Trojans.
“This means everything to us,” said redshirt senior defensive end Datone Jones, who had six tackles. “We played a great USC team and we beat them fair and square. I played this game with my fellow seniors who lost every ‘SC game so far. To win this one ““ I can’t describe the feeling ““ it’s everything.”