Alterraun Verner would have celebrated UCLA's stunning upset of USC in 2006, but he never got the chance. Not after a car and a few old couches were set on fire in Westwood, serving as pyrotechnics for a frenzied, delirious mob on Gayley Avenue. If not for night time, the billows of dark smoke very well could have been visible from across town, further publicizing the Bruins' 13-9 victory that snapped the Trojans' seven-year win streak and dashed their hopes of reaching the BCS title game.
The UCLA football team returned from the Rose Bowl to find the burning was from a riot.
"It was getting out of control," Verner recalls, "so I didn't do too much that night. It was a special moment, not for me or even for the team but all UCLA fans. I felt like I played some of my best games against USC. That's the type of approach I always took: I needed to be at my best because I wanted to beat them. I tried to rise up for that game."
It turned out to be the only win Verner, now a second-year cornerback for the NFL's Tennessee Titans, got against USC. The Bruins have dropped the past four rivalry games (by an average of almost 19 points each). A glimmer of hope for UCLA fans, as Verner points out, is that last season's 14-point loss was the smallest margin of defeat since that night in '06.
"The rivalry is a big thing," Verner says. "You're either a UCLA fan or a USC fan, growing up. I was always a UCLA fan so it was something I always paid attention to. It was a great experience trying to take USC down, because they were always at the top. It was our goal to bring them down a notch. Lately USC has been dominant but UCLA is getting more athletic. I wouldn't say USC is getting weaker but I think we're elevating our game and we're going to start making it competitive."
Verner's allegiance to his roots was tested from Day 1 in the NFL, when former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, a USC alumnus, selected him in the fourth round of the draft. To make things even more challenging, Tennessee also picked former USC receiver Damian Williams and signed Trojans tailback Stafon Johnson. The rivals went from foes to friends in seconds.
"It's business," Verner says. "The rivalry we had in college isn't going to overshadow us trying to win a Super Bowl or trying to win games. Coach Fisher being a Trojan didn't affect me at all. We probably talked about it a couple of times. That was it. In no shape or form do I hate those people because they went to school across town."
And for Verner, that's the UCLA-USC rivalry in a nutshell: fiercely competitive but respectful.
"UCLA is the cream of the crop," Verner says. "You get such a great education. A Bruin is the true definition of a student-athlete. I think there is a brotherhood that we have as Bruins, a sense of pride and unity."
Blair Angulo is co-author of the UCLA blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.