December 3 2006
Seven years of frustration, raining down on them in
forearms and balled fists and fire.
"The whole thing is bull," said USC's Terrell Thomas. "We're a way better team than them, but they came out here and just beat us, and it stinks."
years of indignity, surrounding them with catcalls and chest thumps and a Rose
Bowl that quaked.
"It's very, very upsetting," said USC's Oscar Lua. "They played out of their shoes."
On a finger-tingling December Saturday, after seven years of taking a physical and emotional beating from the cross-town Goliath, David finally stood up and punched back.
UCLA 13, USC 9, a city breathless.
"The Bruins were probably tired of hearing seven years' worth of stuff from people," said USC's Ryan Kalil. "So they took it all out on us."
All of it, every insult, every innuendo, every day of every year, flying down on the Trojans in a torrent of crazy quarterback scrambles and nutty cornerback blitzes and one final tipped-pass punch in the gut of common sense.
The game ended, and USC receiver Patrick Turner was lying on the ground, and all around him teammates were dodging dancing bits of powder blue and fleeing the soggy field as if it had just bit them.
And it had. And it will keep biting them until this time next season, one school's dream day becoming another's year-long nightmare.
Torn apart was a spot in the national championship game. Torn out was a new addition to the dynasty. Shredded were the legends that have become the USC football team, collecting in scraps at the feet of a howling, growling UCLA team that may never have stood stronger than it did Saturday.
Yes, yes, the Trojans outgained the Bruins, had the ball longer than the Bruins, came within 18 yards of surviving the Bruins.
But the victory will be recorded as a UCLA knockout.
A Buster Douglas-over-Mike Tyson knockout.
One moment, the Trojans had won seven consecutive games in this series, 10 of 11 games this season, 55 of their previous 58 games, and were headed for a berth in a third consecutive national championship game.
The next moment, they were stuck to the thick grass, glaring at a dancing backup UCLA linebacker named Eric McNeal, the kid having just tipped and caught a pass to clinch a victory.
John David Booty, the quarterback who threw the pass with 1:10 remaining, remained on the field long after it was picked, staring in shock, as if looking out his car window at the wreckage of a bad accident.
"Have you ever seen somebody tip a pass and then catch it themselves?" he said. "I mean, ever?"
One moment, the Trojans had scored at least 20 points in a national-record 63 consecutive games.
The next moment, they were being called quitters.
"You could see it from about midway through the third quarter," said UCLA cornerback Rodney Van. "Slowly but surely, they gave up."
One moment, they were the No. 2-ranked team in the country, a 12 1/2 -point favorite and …
Wait a minute. Did that guy really call the Trojans quitters?
"Midway through the third quarter, you could start to see it in their faces," Van continued. "The defense was frustrated because the offense wasn't doing anything. So they let down. They quit."
The USC defense was indeed furious at an offense that contributed most of the team's nine penalties and all of the busted plays.
"The defense was the same defense we always play," said Lua. "Tonight it was all about the offense. To see them not be able to get anything going, it hurts."
But, still, c'mon, does anybody really believe USC quit?
Said Lua: "The only way I could answer that charge would be with a vulgarity, and I'm not going to do it."
Said linebacker mate Keith Rivers: "I'm not even going to dignify that with an answer. I will only say this program is built on never giving up."
USC didn't lie down.
USC was beaten down.
It came from defensive ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis. It came from linebackers Christian Taylor and Reggie Carter.
It came in waves, again and again, at just the right time, holding USC to just seven conversions on 20 third- and fourth-down plays.
And, in the end, in this season of surprising USC riches, it reminded the Trojans of the one thing they are still missing.
A quarterback who can ride those waves.
Carson Palmer handled that type of rush. Matt Leinart made a career against that type of rush. Even UCLA's Pat Cowan, wonderfully summoning the memory of John Barnes on Saturday, abused that type of rush with 55 yards in scrambles.
USC did not have that kind of quarterback.
This should have been Booty's moment. He was equipped with quick drops and great wide receivers and an emerging running back.
Yet the rush rattled him, the pressure rocked him and, in the end, the game was bigger than he was.
Remember how the Trojans ended their other loss this season, at
Dwayne Jarrett, the brilliant receiver who caught just four balls Saturday, shook his head and said, "I was open all night, but by the time I turned around to look, either the ball was on the ground or Booty was on the ground."
Booty is a great guy, a stand-up guy. But for the Trojans to take this one-game leap back to the national championship game next season, he may not be the right guy.
Mark Sanchez, anyone?
"Late in the game, Booty was shell-shocked, you could see it; when he was supposed to be looking for receivers, he was trying to figure out where the rush was coming from," said UCLA's Van. "A quarterback of his stature shouldn't be so shaken, but he was shaken."
Now it is the Trojans who are shaken, to their core, wondering if the offense can recover, wondering if the defense will ever forgive the offense, wondering, what next?
"I haven't had a lot of practice in this situation," Pete Carroll said quietly, his team headed for the Rose Bowl, covered in thorns.