National Title Hopes For USC Are Squashed

Dec. 3, 2006

By Jason Owens

Special To



Jason Owens is a freelance writer for, covering various collegiate sports. E-mail here!

PASADENA, Calif. - USC is going back to the Rose Bowl Jan. 1. And UCLA is just fine with that.


Playing for a shot at the national title game, the No. 2 Trojans came up flat against crosstown rival UCLA Saturday as the Bruins pulled off a stunning 13-9 upset for their first victory against USC since 1998. The win secures an Emerald Bowl invitation for UCLA while ensuring USC a return trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl instead of a date with Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game.


"They get to come back and play here again," said UCLA punter Aaron Perez after the game. "I hope they like it."


In a game that UCLA controlled from the beginning, USC looked poised for a crunch-time victory when they converted a 4th-and-1 with less than five minutes remaining and drove deep into Bruins territory with a chance for the lead. But a raucous crowd of 90,622 had the Rose Bowl press box shaking, and senior linebacker Eric McNeal came up with the play of his career as he tipped a John David Booty pass at the line and dove to make the game-saving interception at UCLA's 20-yard-line.


It was an appropriate way to seal the victory as the UCLA defense had Booty out of sync for the entire game.


"We wanted to try to confuse him," said UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker of Booty. "We tried to give him a lot of different looks to get him to doubt what he was doing. McNeal just made a hell of a play. That wasn't a scheme; it was all him."


Whatever UCLA had in mind for Booty it worked. He completed 23-of-39 passes for 274 yards but failed to find the end zone. And, perhaps more importantly, he failed to complete big plays to stud receiver Dwayne Jarrett, who finished the day with 68 yards on four receptions.


While the passing game failed to come up with home runs, the running game struggled to come up with anything. The Trojans averaged a paltry 1.9 yards-per-carry for 55 yards on the ground. Freshman standout C.J. Gable, who had big performances against Cal and Notre Dame, gained 60 yards on 19 carries. As a result, USC struggled to move the ball with any consistency. The normally potent Trojans converted just 6-of-17 third-down attempts and 1-of-3 fourth-down efforts.


"Give credit to UCLA," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "We did not anticipate this happening. They did a nice job of rushing the passer. Booty had a hard day. They knocked him around. He was off-balance all day."


On the other side, UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan, in his seventh start filling in for injured starter Ben Olson, did just enough with his arm while looking like Vince Young with his legs as he scrambled for big gains against the USC defense and scored the only UCLA touchdown of the day. He finished with 10 rushes for 72 yards and the touchdown and kept his mistakes throwing the ball to a minimum. 


"I was trying to get some positive yards," Cowan said. "Coach (Karl) Dorrell told me that if I could make some plays with my feet, that I should do it. That's what I did."


As stinging as the loss was for USC, it may be just as big of a win for UCLA. Dorrell has been under intense scrutiny from a UCLA fan base that had big expectations coming off of a 10-2 season and is, quite frankly, sick of hearing about USC. Since Carroll's been in town, USC has dominated the local and national headlines, leaving UCLA as a football afterthought.


It hasn't helped matters that UCLA has had difficulty closing out wins this season, with a last-minute loss against Notre Dame on national TV being the toughest pill for the Bruins to swallow.


And while this win is far from a cure-all for the Bruins woes against USC, it goes a long way in appeasing the UCLA faithful and maintaining Dorrell's job security.


"I know how important this win is for the Bruin family," Dorrell said. "I know it's been a long time. Believe me; this is my fourth year and to get it after three feels like a long time. It's a great game to end the home season on."


Perhaps safety Dennis Keyes put it best, though.


"We're trying to get our respect back and get our part of the city," he said. "I think we did a little of that today."


As far as the big picture goes, the USC loss puts a big kink in the national title race. The Trojans were virtually a lock for a championship game berth with a win on Saturday, but now face a likely matchup with LSU in the Rose Bowl. 


The debate again shifts, this time to a one-loss Florida team that beat Arkansas for the SEC title and a one-loss Michigan team that dropped a close game to Ohio State Nov. 18. Good luck to the BCS in sorting out that mess. 



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