Big final quarter gives USC an exciting comeback win over rival UCLA

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Ben Bolch
·5 min read
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USC's Amon-ra St. Brown catches the winning touchdown pass while defended by UCLA's Rayshad Williams on Dec. 12, 2020.
USC wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown catches the winning touchdown pass with 16 seconds left while being covered by UCLA defensive back Rayshad Williams on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

If USC rallies to beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl and no one is there to see it, does it make any noise in the rivalry?

Sure it does. A ringing of the Victory Bell that can be heard all the way from Pasadena to Figueroa Street.

With a breathtaking second half that served as vindication for USC coach Clay Helton and a staggering setback for UCLA counterpart Chip Kelly, the No. 15 Trojans kept coming back Saturday evening during a 43-38 victory in front of an empty stadium.

That’s not to say things were quiet after a pack of USC defenders knocked away UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s desperation pass into the end zone on the final play.

The Trojans (5-0) sprinted onto the field, providing their own jubilant soundtrack, after wiping out 28-10, 35-23 and 38-36 deficits while denying Kelly what would have been the most meaningful victory of his three seasons with the Bruins.

“That’s about as special as it gets,” Helton said.

UCLA (3-3) still could secure bowl eligibility with a victory next weekend in its final regular-season game, though it will have to heavily regroup after such a crushing defeat.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for five touchdowns and 344 yards with two interceptions.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for five touchdowns and 344 yards with two interceptions Saturday night and guided the Trojans to another comeback win. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“That game should have been ours, point-blank, period,” Bruins safety Quentin Lake said after his team was outscored 20-3 in the fourth quarter.

USC capped one of its most improbable rivalry comebacks after receiver Amon-ra St. Brown caught an eight-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone on an audible from quarterback Kedon Slovis with 16 seconds left. The score was set up by Gary Bryant Jr.’s 56-yard kickoff return and Tyler Vaughns’ stunning 35-yard catch near the sideline in double coverage.

“I knew if we just had one more opportunity,” Helton said, “that they’d make something happen.”

Only moments earlier, UCLA freshman kicker Nicholas Barr-Mira looked like he would be the hero after making a 43-yard field goal to give the Bruins a 38-36 lead with 56 seconds left.

Much of the next few days could be spent in regret mode for Kelly after he elected to put the ball in freshman running back Keegan Jones’ hands on fourth and one at the USC 37-yard line with a little more than four minutes left. Jones was stuffed for no gain, leading to a turnover on downs.

Kelly said Jones got the carry instead of mainstay running back Demetric Felton Jr. (90 yards) or Brittain Brown (34) because he was in the game at the time.

“Keegan’s a good solid runner for us,” Kelly said, “so we just came up a little short.”

USC will play Washington in the Pac-12 championship on Friday at the Coliseum, assuming the Huskies have enough players available after their game against Oregon this weekend was declared a no contest because of positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing within the Washington program.

Thompson-Robinson looked like the best quarterback on the field much of the night, completing 30 of 36 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns. But his two interceptions helped spark the Trojans toward their third thrilling comeback of the season after they also rallied for late victories over Arizona State and Arizona.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson runs the ball during the second quarter against USC on Dec. 12, 2020.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson ran for 50 yards and passed for 364 yards and four touchdowns Saturday, but it still wasn't enough. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“We’ve been through the situation so many times,” Slovis said, “I felt like everyone had their cool.”

USC safety Talanoa Hufanga momentarily appeared to put his team ahead for the first time midway through the fourth quarter when he stepped in front of a Thompson-Robinson pass and returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown, but a block in the back on the Trojans wiped out the score and gave them the ball at the UCLA 30.

Consecutive offsides penalties on UCLA’s Caleb Johnson and Carl Jones eventually set up a first and goal at the nine. On the next play, Slovis found Drake London in the middle of the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown that gave USC a 36-35 lead with 8:09 left.

The Trojans had all the momentum late in the third quarter and looked like they were on the verge of taking control when back-to-back plays served as potential backbreakers.

On the first play, a Slovis pass went through St. Brown’s hands before being snagged by UCLA safety Stephan Blaylock just inches above the ground for an interception.

On the next play, Thompson-Robinson found tight end Greg Dulcich over the middle for a 69-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bruins a 35-23 lead.

The Trojans rallied once more, making it 35-30 after running back Vavae Malepeai capped a 75-yard drive with a hard-charging 10-yard touchdown run on third and five.

They were just getting started.

One year after he threw for a school-record 515 yards and four touchdowns against the Bruins, Slovis tallied 344 yards and five touchdowns. The Trojans also rediscovered their running game one week after mustering five yards on the ground against Washington State, with Malepeai gaining 110 yards and a touchdown in 19 carries.

The Bruins were hurt by two special teams breakdowns, including a botched punt in which Luke Akers fumbled after taking too long to get the ball off. UCLA also gave up the long kickoff return in the final minute after R.J. Lopez had boomed every other kickoff for a touchback.

The devastation spread to all corners of a silent locker room afterward, the Bruins lost in thought about what might have been.

“I’d say it was the quietest it’s ever been,” Thompson-Robinson said. “This isn’t a normal game and this isn’t a normal loss.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.