The tangible stakes in Saturday’s rivalry game were practically nil. Do UCLA and USC fans really care whether their team plays in the Sun Bowl or the Las Vegas Bowl? What UCLA’s 35-14 semi-domination did was send one team, UCLA, into the off-season with sky-high expectations and the other, USC, into the off-season with more uncertainty.
Some of that could be cleared up any day now, with ESPN’s Joe Schad reporting that the Trojans’ coaching search could be concluded by the middle of this week. The joy ride under interim coach Ed Orgeron would have had a far happier conclusion if his team had showed up with a little more fight in its final regular-season game.
The UCLA defense, plus some key early drops by his receivers, conspired to make Cody Kessler look ordinary, which is exactly what USC fans fret that he is. Kessler was sacked six times, under pressure most of the game and he completed just 17 of his 28 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. There were times Kessler moved the team effectively, but it was a game devoid of big plays, so the momentum -- and the crowd -- never really got in the Trojans’ corner. If there was a bright spot, it was the emergence of talented tight end Xavier Grimble into the offense. He caught Kessler’s only passing touchdown in the third quarter.
Orgeron said he was a little disappointed his team didn’t run the ball better, especially early in the game. Eventually, the run game emerged, but by then, UCLA was leading, so the Trojans were more apt to pass. Javorius Allen rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, going over 100 yards for the fourth time in five games. Other than that, the Trojans mustered virtually no rushing attack. In part due to a couple of injuries, the Trojans weren’t able to establish their bread and butter -- a power run game -- and that allowed UCLA to set the tempo.
IN THE TRENCHES
The two turning points of Saturday’s game, both emotionally and tangibly, for USC came when two of their starting offensive linemen had to be carted off the field with injuries. Center Marcus Martin injured his knee in USC’s first possession of the first quarter and was replaced by former walk-on Abe Markowitz. Tackle Aundrey Walker broke his ankle in USC’s first possession of the second half and has already undergone surgery, meaning he’s out for the Trojans’ bowl game. He was replaced by John Martinez. Given those twin body shots, the line performed about as well as could have been expected. UCLA has some talented pass rushers, none more talented than linebacker Anthony Barr, who had two sacks and forced a fumble.
According to Orgeron, the Trojans prepared all week to stop Brett Hundley’s quarterback draws, but it sure didn’t look like it. It seemed as if every time the Bruins needed a first down, the talented quarterback just shot up the middle for 10 to 20 yards and moved the chains, or dashed around end for a touchdown. In all, UCLA had 396 total yards of offense. Hundley ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns and completed 18 of 27 pass tries for 208 yards.
In addition to the two injuries on the offensive line, this was where the biggest breakdown came. Coach John Baxter is a respected special teams coach, but in a big game, his units didn’t perform well. In fact, that’s putting it kindly. Punter Kris Albarado averaged just 33.5 yards per punt, one of them a shanked 15-yarder that set up a UCLA touchdown. More punishing were breakdowns on kick coverage. UCLA cornerback Ishmael Adams had returns of 37, 47 and 46 yards. Field position was in UCLA’s favor all game, helping tilt the game their way.
The day after the most disappointing loss in his coaching life, Orgeron was back on the recruiting trail. He hosts a big weekend for recruits on Dec. 13. If reports are true and athletic director Pat Haden is looking outside for his new head coach, he will need to put some effort into finding a way to retain Orgeron, one of the nation’s best recruiters. That way, the Trojans can guarantee themselves another good class in February, just as the sanctions begin to ease. Orgeron sounded resigned to his fate. If you’re a USC coach on the bubble, losing to Notre Dame and UCLA usually bursts it. Jim Mora’s team seemed to have more consistent energy and focus.