LOS ANGELES -- The gap is still about 50 points wide.
An asterisk in the record book will serve as a permanent reminder of just how far UCLA was from joining the college football elite when it advanced to the inaugural Pac-12 title game.
With a resounding 50-0 victory over UCLA Saturday night at the Coliseum, USC stamped a Cardinal letter on UCLA’s back-door division title and nixed the notion that UCLA had in any way closed the gap between the rival programs as Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel claimed earlier this week that UCLA had done.
The Trojans demonstrated the difference between national-title contender and mediocre conference pretender and the only gap that might have closed Saturday night was the one between Neuheisel and the unemployment line.
This wasn’t just a bad loss, it was a historically bad loss. Only two other games in this rivalry had a larger margin of victory: USC’s 76-0 victory in 1929 and a 52-0 victory by the Trojans in 1930 -- the first two times the teams played.
It was also the second-largest loss in the Rick Neuheisel era at UCLA, trailing only the 59-0 beatdown at Brigham Young in 2008.
So UCLA will represent the Pac-12 South in the inaugural conference title game Friday at Oregon coming off one of the worst losses the Bruins have ever suffered, a 50-point shellacking that proves without a doubt that the best team in the division will not be on the field at Autzen Stadium because NCAA sanctions prohibit USC from playing in the post season.
“Tonight they were clearly superior to us, but I don’t believe that is the case at all times and I believe that we can close the gap and I believe we will,” Neuheisel said.
Fifty points is a big gap to close and the game was never really close. USC scored on its first four possessions and totaled 572 yards in total offense -- only one yard short of the season-high 573 against UCLA by Arizona.
The Bruins, continuing a season-long theme, could not stop the short passing attack and USC quarterback Matt Barkley simply shredded UCLA’s defense by completing a mind-numbing 35-of-42 passes (83.3 percent) for 423 yards and six touchdowns.
“We heard that someone was trying to close the gap so we were trying not to let that happen,” Barkley said.
The Trojans did more than accomplish that mission, they sent a major setback to UCLA’s effort to progress as a program. A Bruin victory Saturday would have given UCLA an indisputable berth in the conference title game and showed that the Bruins had, indeed, climbed a little closer to elite programs such as USC.
Instead, USC delivered a major dagger to UCLA’s growth.
“A 50-point dagger,” tight end Joe Fauria said. “And it really hurts. It hurts every part, emotionally, spiritually, everything. It hurts the heart.”
Now UCLA is faced with the prospect of becoming a national laughingstock. The Bruins (6-6, 5-4 in Pac-12) are more than a three-touchdown underdog against Oregon (10-2, 8-1) and lost, 60-13, when they visited Eugene last season, so odds are they will fall to 6-7.
Teams with losing records are not bowl eligible so the Bruins would have to ask for a waiver to get into a bowl game despite playing in the conference title game. And Saturday’s loss begs the question: Does a team that just lost 50-0 deserve to play in the conference title game?
“With the way this is all set up this year, clearly we do. We’re in it,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “It’s kind of bittersweet that we’re kind of backing into it with the whole ‘SC ineligibility and that’s why we wanted to win this game so badly.”
This isn’t the first time UCLA has been blown out this season. The Bruins were outscored 174-37 in their four conference losses. They have responded with a win after each loss, a small sign of growth, but in order to truly close the gap with USC, those kinds of losses can’t happen.
Elite teams don’t get blown out by 50 points.
“‘SC is ‘SC and we weren’t going to let the Bruins come into our house and put up a fight,” Trojans’ receiver Robert Woods said. “It shows on the scoreboard 50-0, that we’re still running L.A. and hopefully the gap got a little bigger.”
Responding with an unlikely victory next at Oregon certainly would go a long way toward getting rid of the bad taste of Saturday’s loss.
But then there will always be that little reminder in the Pac-12 record books: UCLA, 2011 Pac-12 South Division champions*.