The game was billed as a meeting between two elite quarterbacks, but special teams made the difference in the first half of Saturday night’s UCLA-USC game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Trojans entered halftime with a 14-7 lead, thanks to a pair of key kick returns and a missed field goal by the Bruins, who came into the game as 15-point underdogs.
Representatives from 20 NFL teams – most there to scout UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold – got a better look at the Bruins’ quarterback than at the Trojans’.
Rosen did the majority of the work for the Bruins’ offense, racking up 228 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-28 passing.
He leaned heavily on sophomore wide receiver Theo Howard and redshirt junior wideout Jordan Lasley. Howard paced the Bruins with seven catches and Lasley led the team with 109 yards. Lasley also hauled in a 53-yard pass that was nullified by an ineligible-receiver penalty.
Darnold had 132 yards and an interception on 10-of-15 passing, as USC mostly opted to stay on the ground against UCLA’s weak run defense. Running back Ronald Jones piled up 88 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
The Trojans opened the scoring on a 72-yard punt return touchdown by wide receiver Michael Pittman, on which the Trojans faked out the Bruins, their primary punt returner drawing UCLA’s coverage team towards one sideline while the ball headed toward the other. Pittman caught the ball and easily took it all the way to the end zone for the first punt return touchdown given up by the Bruins this season.
Rosen quickly produced an answer, leading the Bruins on a 7-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown pass to Lasley.
The Trojans jumped ahead again before the first quarter ended, though, taking advantage of a long kickoff return to score again with a 6-play, 56-yard drive keyed by 37 yards from Jones.
UCLA looked set to keep pace, but a clipping penalty negated a touchdown run by junior running back Bolu Olorunfunmi, and sophomore kicker JJ Molson came up short on a 47-yard field goal attempt.
From then on, neither team would score again in the opening half, with a strip-sack fumble by Rosen squashing a threatening UCLA drive and an interception from Darnold ending a USC possession.