Five Things: UCLA vs. USC
Redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson launches a pass on the run. Thompson-Robinson and No. 16 UCLA football couldn’t overcome No. 7 USC at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night. (Anika Chakrabarti/Photo editor)
No. 16 UCLA football (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) returned the Victory Bell to crosstown rival No. 7 USC (10-1, 8-1) with a 48-45 loss Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. Senior staff writers Jon Christon and Francis Moon give their five main takeaways from the Bruins’ heartbreaking defeat to the Trojans.
A (quarterback) battle for LA
Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Caleb Williams represented opposite ends of the crosstown rivalry spectrum.
UCLA’s redshirt senior quarterback had been a part of the rivalry four times already – starring in three of them – and made his position known about the Trojans coming into Saturday.
“We hate those guys across town,” Thompson-Robinson said.
Willliams, on the other hand, had not played in the rivalry before this year, nor is he from the area. He said he was treating his first career matchup against the Bruins just like he would any other game.
The difference in approaches manifested itself into different performances Saturday night.
Williams had one of the best games of any quarterback in college football this year. He gained 503 yards of total offense – the most by any single player in the 93-year history of the rivalry – while adding three total touchdowns. He carved through the Bruin defense with ease, making nearly every play he needed to to lead the Trojans to victory.
On the opposite sideline, Thompson-Robinson fell flat.
His six total touchdowns matched last year’s total against the Trojans and gave him 20 for his career against USC, but untimely mistakes proved to be his downfall.
In the end, UCLA needed more from its fifth-year signal-caller. USC, meanwhile, got everything it needed and more from the young Williams.
The Achilles’ heel
For years, it’s been the same story for the Bruins.
No matter how many points the offense can pile on, in the end it won’t matter without getting a stop when it counts.
And Saturday night, the blue and gold could not buy one.
Granted, the Trojans boast one of the top offenses in the nation. But questions about the Bruins’ defense were as rampant as they’ve been all season after the blue and gold’s loss to Arizona. Once again, the passing defense proved to be UCLA’s crutch.
Jordan Addison, a projected first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, made the Bruin secondary look hopeless as he found himself wide open all night. After returning from a month-long absence because of injury a week prior, the wide receiver appeared to be back at full strength as he reeled in 11 catches for a season-high 178 yards.
The Pittsburgh transfer routinely created separation from the defense with ease, hauling in five catches of 16 or more yards – including a 35-yard touchdown grab.
But it wasn’t just Addison wreaking havoc, as UCLA allowed running back Austin Jones and wide receivers Kyle Ford and Michael Jackson III to combine for 172 receiving yards, with each recording 20-plus-yard snags.
The Bruins still showed some hope with early red-zone stops, redshirt junior linebacker Kain Medrano grabbing Williams’ third pick of the season and, most crucially, a sack by redshirt junior linebacker Laiatu Latu to give the offense a chance to win the game.
But in the end, the UCLA defense proved it was not up to the task.
It was a picture-perfect scenario for Thompson-Robinson.
With just over two minutes to work with and a three-point deficit, the quarterback lined up his offense for arguably the biggest two-minute drill of his career.
The redshirt senior connected with redshirt senior wide receiver Jake Bobo on 3rd-and-10 for a big gain, but the perfect ending quickly turned stale.
With the biggest crowd he’s had all season behind him, Thompson-Robinson threw the ball into tight coverage and saw it get intercepted – and just like that, the game was over.
The signal-caller had been dealing with a hand injury all night, but also made pivotal mistakes at the end of the first half by throwing two interceptions on each of UCLA’s final two drives of the second period.
The first went without consequences, as USC kicker Denis Lynch missed his second field goal of the game from 33 yards out to keep UCLA ahead. And on the second, it looked as if the Bruins escaped disaster as Lynch was short on a 49-yarder.
But coach Chip Kelly called a timeout in an attempt to ice the kicker, a decision that came back to haunt him as Lynch nailed his redo and tacked on what proved to be a crucial three points before the end of the first half.
Thompson-Robinson also fumbled twice in the third quarter, recovering one but coughing the ball up on a strip sack to set up the USC offense at 1st-and-goal. In total, four turnovers led to 10 points for the visitors.
In what could have been a fairytale ending to a fabled career, Thompson-Robinson couldn’t turn over a new page.
After throwing for a touchdown seconds into the final quarter, the Trojans squibbed the kickoff to avoid giving Kazmeir Allen a chance at returning it.
But the “Kazmanian Devil” would not be denied, as the redshirt junior wide receiver immediately took a short pass up the middle 55 yards to the house on the first play of the drive to respond and bring UCLA back within three points.
On a night when Bobo brought in just four of his 10 targets, the Bruins searched for a spark as USC scored in bunches. Though not all of them were his fault with some questionable no-calls, Bobo dropped more than a couple catchable balls.
Redshirt senior tight end Michael Ezeike did his best, emerging with three receiving touchdowns on the night, including one that went for 30 yards in the first period. Senior running back Zach Charbonnet did his usual damage with 124 total yards, though he couldn’t find the end zone for just the second time this season.
But it was Allen who once again brought the fire, turning on the jets while bringing the entire stadium to life on the longest play of the day.
The redshirt junior finished with five catches on seven targets for 72 yards, but most importantly came through in a crucial moment for UCLA.
Allen has made his claim as the fastest player in college football, and the Bruins may need to lean on their Swiss Army knife more than ever to bring explosiveness to their offense.
Title hopes gone in a flash
Just two weeks ago, the Bruins had a path to some serious postseason recognition.
People across the country were looking at UCLA as a trendy New Year’s Six bowl selection, with some going as far as calling the blue and gold a dark horse College Football Playoff contender.
Now, the Bruins are clinging to fifth place in a lacking football conference with the possibility of ending their season before Christmas, and they have nobody to blame but themselves.
While UCLA no longer controlled its own Pac-12 destiny entering Saturday thanks to last week’s loss to Arizona, it still had a realistic path to the conference title game. A victory against USC would have given the blue and gold the head-to-head tiebreaker over its crosstown rival, and considering Utah’s loss to Oregon on Saturday, only a Washington loss stood in its way of reclaiming its destiny.
Instead, the defeat officially eliminated the Bruins from Pac-12 championship contention. UCLA is now tied with Oregon State for fifth place in the conference with bleak projections ahead.
As opposed to ending the season back in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, the best the Bruins can hope for is the Las Vegas Bowl or the LA Bowl, both on Dec. 17. UCLA could also qualify for the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30, but the Alamo Bowl and Holiday Bowl are likely out of the question.
Bowl games are accomplishments unto themselves – just ask the Bruins from 2016 to 2020. But given where UCLA was just two short weeks ago, this end to its season is nothing short of a disaster.