The moment was two years in the making, but those paying close attention at USC’s practice would know it’d been foreshadowed days earlier.
For Korey Foreman, his sophomore season had been anything but smooth to that point. Hoping for a fresh start after a frustrating freshman year, the former five-star prospect instead played only a bit part on a defense in desperate need of pass rushers.
Last week, ahead of playing UCLA, Foreman dropped into coverage during practice and pulled down an interception. After the play, safety Bryson Shaw approached him with a message.
“Let’s get it in the game now,” Shaw told him.
Fast-forward to Saturday, with Foreman looking up at the clock in the fourth quarter, UCLA driving while down by three to USC, with 1:32 left to play.
“I just knew at that moment, a play had to be made,” Foreman said. “I was just telling myself, let’s do it right here, right now.”
He dropped into coverage, watching UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson as he moved from one read to another. UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet was covered. Thompson-Robinson hadn’t taken off running. So Foreman floated back toward the middle of the field, where UCLA’s quarterback was looking toward receiver Kazmeir Allen.
Foreman jumped the route. He pulled down the game-winning interception, the biggest play of his career. Soon after, he sought out Shaw.
“Korey didn’t forget about it,” Shaw recalled. “He came up to me in the locker room and said, ‘I told you. I told you.’ ”
All season, coaches had told Foreman to be patient, to focus on improving one week at a time. Finally, the approach paid off.
“He’s worked hard behind the scenes, and [he’s] a great example of ‘don't worry about any outside expectations or what other people think, it doesn't matter.’ You just keep working to improve and good things happen.”
Here are three more takeaways from USC’s 48-45 rivalry win over UCLA:
A year ago, as USC stumbled to a disastrous 4-8 finish, the prospect of a trip to the College Football Playoff the next season seemed entirely preposterous.
Yet, here they are, nearly one year after Lincoln Riley’s hire at USC. If the Trojans beat Notre Dame, then win the Pac-12 title game — presumably against Oregon — there’s every reason to believe that USC will be among the last four standing in the playoff race two weeks from now.
It has Tennessee, in part, to thank for that. The No. 5 Volunteers came completely unraveled against South Carolina as Riley’s old quarterback at Oklahoma, Spencer Rattler, threw for six touchdowns. To make matters worse for Tennessee, it might have lost its own star quarterback, Hendon Hooker, for the foreseeable future. Its CFP dreams are done.
Either Michigan or Ohio State will lose next week, leaving a one-loss, top-tier Big Ten team that could have a compelling case over a one-loss Pac-12 champion. Texas Christian also remains undefeated after slipping past Baylor, with a tough Big 12 matchup against Kansas State awaiting in the conference title game.
The field is narrowing, and USC finds itself in an excellent position amid the chaos. It has just one job from here: Win out.
Denis Lynch’s up-and-down night
When Denis Lynch lined up for a 49-yard field goal just before halftime Saturday, he’d already missed two critical kicks. One was a botched 32-yarder in which he appeared to kick the holder’s hand. The other was from 33, less than a minute earlier.
Now, he had a chance at redemption. He missed it short.
This time, though, USC and its kicker were bailed out by a lucky break, courtesy of their crosstown rival. In an attempt to ice Lynch, UCLA coach Chip Kelly called a timeout just before the snap.
“A bad call by me,” Kelly admitted afterward.
Lynch launched his second attempt through the uprights for a 49-yard field goal, the longest of his career. “So clutch,” Riley said.
In a 48-45 win, it would be the difference. Yet the two misses beforehand shouldn’t be forgotten either. It was the second game in the last month in which Lynch has missed two kicks. He’s made just two-thirds of his attempts this season, which ranks among the worst success rates for any FBS kicker.
Lynch’s job doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy just yet. But with two critical weeks ahead, it’s fair to wonder if USC can rely on its kicker in the consequential moments to come.
There was no question about coordinator Alex Grinch’s biggest concern for his USC defense coming into Saturday. He made it abundantly clear leading up to the game that UCLA’s Charbonnet would be the best back USC had faced all season.
So how did the Trojans manage to hold Charbonnet to under 100 yards for the first time since September? Grinch needed just one word to explain.
“Tuli,” he said.
Tuli Tuipulotu wreaked havoc on UCLA’s run game as USC moved its star defensive lineman around its front — even using him as a linebacker.
In the end, it was USC’s rushing attack that ran away with Saturday’s game, despite being without its lead back, Travis Dye. Austin Jones stepped in and had the best game of his career with 177 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
“He was huge,” Riley said of Jones. “Exactly what we expected him to be, exactly what he has been.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.