Posted on December 13, 2020
Whatever USC’s victory over UCLA meant for the Trojans—in terms of the Pac-12 Championship race, nothing; in terms of the nearly-as-important reign over Los Angeles, everything—the 43-38 win was the most heart-stopping, riveting, terrifying game of the year.
Given USC’s myriad improbable comebacks in 2020, that feels almost impossible.
The Trojans needed contributions from up and down the roster in order to turn a game seemingly destined for heartbreak into one punctuated by exhilaration.
There were obvious contributors:
• Talanoa Hufanga with his 17 total tackles and timely interception
• Tyler Vaughns with his 128 yards, diving touchdown and incredible 35-yard reception on USC’s decisive drive in the final minute; Vavae Malepeai with his 110 yards and a touchdown
• Drake London carrying UCLA’s entire secondary plus half of Westwood to the end zone in the second quarter; Amon-Ra St. Brown with his two touchdowns including the ultimate go-ahead score
• Kedon Slovis with his typical Kedon-Slovis-in-the-fourth-quarter shenanigans
Then, there were the more subtle, momentary contributors:
• Drake Jackson with his two third- or fourth-and-short stops in the second half
• Gary Bryant Jr. with his 56-yard kickoff return to UCLA territory that put USC in position to steal the game from the jaws of defeat
• Markese Stepp with a hard-fought, overlooked third-and-1 conversion on his only carry of the game to keep USC’s first go-ahead touchdown drive alive in the fourth quarter.
Put simply, on an individual level, several Trojans had themselves a night.
Clay Helton was not one of them. In fact, if Saturday night’s Crosstown Showdown were solely a coaching battle, the Victory Bell that now gets to keep its cardinal coat would be well on its way to a makeover of UCLA Blue.
USC had just made it a 5-point game at 28-23 with the first of two Slovis touchdown passes to St. Brown, this one a 3-yarder. Helton decided to go for the 2-point conversion to make it a 3-point game so that, obviously, a field goal would tie it. Slovis had Malepeai wide open in the flat with a clear path to the end zone, but under pressure, Slovis missed the throw.
OK, so it didn’t work out. Fine idea, though, right?
Not so fast. There’s one detail I purposely omitted until now so as to evoke a disgusted visceral reaction upon reading it, even though you probably already knew: There were four minutes left in the third quarter.
Did Helton think no more points would be scored in that game, a ridiculous assumption even if it wasn’t shaping up to be an offensive shootout? Did he think it being a 3-point deficit instead of a 4-point hole at that moment in the game was actually going to mean something significant in the long run?
The score, and the subsequent mathematics for USC to consider, were bound to change. Of course, they did.
USC’s first go-ahead touchdown then put the team up 36-35, demanding another 2-point conversion to put the Trojans up by a field goal. Slovis hit London just shy of the goal line, and this time, London couldn’t break the plane, so the lead held at 1.
Had Helton opted to take the PAT in the third quarter, the Trojans presumably would’ve taken the PAT again in the fourth. Now, I’m a journalism major, not a math guy, but I believe that would’ve brought the lead to 3 points at 38-35 (assuming Parker Lewis’ perfect 20-for-20 PAT rate held).
The field goal that UCLA’s Nicholas Barr-Mira hit with 52 seconds left would have still induced a nervous meltdown in the hearts of Trojan fans everywhere, but at least they would’ve known that the worst-case scenario was a tie game instead of a 2-point deficit.
As it was, though, the Trojans trailed going into that final possession. And were it not for a heroic and gutsy return by Gary Bryant Jr., an incredible pass and catch from Slovis to Vaughns on the first play from scrimmage and a beautiful end-zone fade to St. Brown on the second, the Trojans might’ve been in a position where overtime wouldn’t have seemed all too bad compared to a waiving of rights over the Victory Bell to the Bruins.
Helton’s timeout usage was also questionable, albeit less so than the 2-point tries. Timeouts with 2:43 remaining in the third and 8:57 left in the fourth—both when USC trailed—set UCLA up to potentially run the clock out and drill the game-winning field goal with no time remaining at all.
The timeouts may have been necessary in the moments they were called, but it seemed as though Helton needed to find a way to save them for the final minutes.
USC almost needed them. Almost—but not quite. And that’s my point.
In the end, the Trojans’ playmakers made plays to bail them out. Before Bryant, before Slovis, before Vaughns, before St. Brown, Drake Jackson and Ralen Goforth stuffed Dorian Thompson-Robinson one yard behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-2. USC forced the field goal, putting the ball back into the hands of its offense for one last desperation drive with 52 ticks remaining.
They only needed 36.
—More from Nathan Ackerman—
- Ackerman: USC was right to opt out of a bowl game
- Ackerman: Fired-Up USC has ‘the Juice’
- Ackerman: Midseason Awards for USC Football
- Ackerman: USC’s Performance against Utah was Promising Moving Forward
- Ackerman: That Wasn’t Good Enough, USC
- Ackerman: Things that Could Go Wrong for the Trojans this Year
- Ackerman: The Munir McClain Situation Puts Clay Helton in Hot Water
- Ackerman: Don’t Underestimate the Impact of Alijah Vera-Tucker’s Return
- Ackerman: Game-by-Game Predictions for USC in 2020
- Ackerman: AP Voters Disrespected Trojans in Leaving them Out of Latest Poll
- Ackerman: Not Playing Football in Fall Would be Catastrophic for Pac-12
- Ackerman: New Trojan Coaches Must Get More Out of Their Existing Talent
Ackerman: USC was right to opt out of a bowl gameTurning down an Alamo Bowl bid wasn't quitting; it just wasn’t worth it - December 21, 2020
Ackerman: In the End, USC’s Playmakers Made Plays AgainThe Trojans’ talent bailed out questionable coaching decisions on Saturday - December 13, 2020
Ackerman: Fired-Up USC has ‘the Juice’The Trojans’ energy in Week 5 showed they want the smoke of whatever comes their way - December 8, 2020