USC-UCLA in the Rain – November 18, 2012

I like football best in real autumn elements. Sure, a glorious sunny day is great, but any weather is okay on the gridiron. Cold and wet, that’s football weather.

So for a change I anticipate my kind of weather at the Rose Bowl during the 82nd meeting of USC and UCLA. I also expect UCLA to compete for the first time in years. Both are talented, well-coached teams ranked in the Top 25. No blowout either way this time.

I’m wearing a western-style wide-brim wool hat, ski parka, and Doc Martens, sitting on my shoulder bag that holds my water bottle, game program, and sports section of the L.A. Times. Couples and families lay blankets on the aluminum bleachers, most red or blue with corresponding logo. Everyone’s dressed for what’s just beginning to fall out of the sky.

My cousin Bob and I are getting excited sitting in the cold wind during warm ups, spotting the coaches – a more challenging game since they don’t wear numbers.

Bob says, “I think Silas Redd is still hurt. I’m not sure how well the Trojans will run the ball.”

I shrug. “The Bruins give up a lot of yards. Key is how many points they allow.”

“I think the key is Brett Hundley. End of the year, he’s not really a freshman anymore.”

“He’s looked good. He’s got to manage the game. The turnovers will decide.”

Bob nods. “Hey, anything can happen in a rivalry game.”

Blue and red outfits pepper the stands, many couples sporting both. I’m surprised at the empty seats, but they fill up after the announced kickoff time. I guess many were tailgating while TV commentators recited their keys to the game. We prefer watching the teams run onto the field and warm up.

“Fight on!” rings out repeatedly, as do eight-claps. Two fingered salutes poke toward the Trojan Band in concert formation. The Bruin Band revs up the home crowd – for once the Bruins seem to have a home field advantage and this feels like a rivalry again.

The Trojans opt to receive. With the wind Jeff Locke drills the kickoff, Marquise Lee watching the ball soar past the end zone. Touchback.

Matt Barkley behind center, we all expect a running play, but Barkley takes a short drop, throws just past the line of scrimmage on the left – it’s picked off! Bruin fans roar with fists in the air, Trojan fans gasp with hands to cheeks or top of head, everyone’s jaw hanging down to the bleachers. We hardly believe it even as we watch the replay on the stadium screens.

Barkley threw between the slot receiver and the split end and the Bruin defenders outnumbered them. Good scouting, well-designed defensive call – I gotta say both, plus great execution.

A talented young secondary going against talented young receivers. Yes, the rivalry is back. Aaron Hester gets the best of Barkley and SC’s receivers on the very first play from scrimmage.

The Bruins cash in on Trojan turnovers, sprinting out to a 24-point lead. Unthinkable, even for UCLAn optimists. Bruins look dominant. Most impressive is their yardage running the ball with Jonathan Franklin’s multiple cuts and second and third efforts for first downs behind the young Bruin offensive line. Franklin dashes into the end zone. Brett Hundley also runs in for a score and is passing efficiently. UCLA 24, USC 0.

“No, no, no!” I shout. “It’s too much time to run off the clock.” Heavy rain bothers the Bruins end of the second quarter, but while they seem to go conservative, predictable, run-run-incompletion-punt two series in a row, USC keeps passing. Barkley seems in rhythm for the first time, UCLA mostly rushing three with no blitzes.

“The Bruins need more than 24 points,” I say to Bob. “Whoever wins is going to score more than thirty points, maybe more than forty.” Barkley tosses touchdowns to Lee and Telfer in the last five minutes of the half, coming most of the way back – UCLA 24, USC 14.

Bob goes for food late in halftime after the lines die down and misses the first possession of the second half. Bruins receive. Third down at the twenty-yard-line. In pouring rain the snap gets nowhere near Hundley in the shotgun set. Franklin picks up the bouncing ball but gets hit before he can tuck it. Hundley reaches for it but also gets hit, watching the ball squib past him into the end zone. Linebacker George Uko recovers for a Trojan touchdown – UCLA 24, USC 20. Nervous time for fans in blue; cardinal-clothed faithful get loud for the first time since the start of the game.

USC misses the extra point, the teams trade touchdowns, and USC makes a 2-point conversion to get within a field goal – UCLA 31, USC 28.

In the fourth Jonathan Franklin takes over. Like all great running backs he gets in rhythm as the game goes on, and as the defense tires he runs over, past, and around them. Franklin makes three cuts on a 29-yard touchdown run, staking UCLA to a ten-point lead that the defense cashes in.

Barkley has looked sharp on only two possessions. With Jeff Locke kicking through the end zone six times – with and against the wind – Marquise Lee got only one chance for a kick return after a UCLA penalty backed up Locke and put the kick into play. A good return but not a field flipper. Lee got loose for one touchdown in USC’s comeback, but he also fumbled a handoff he received in the tailback position. As the old saw goes, “You cannot hope to stop him.” The Bruin defenders have done a great job of containment.

Near the end, with just a wisp of a hope left, Barkley doesn’t sense impending doom rushing him from the backside. Converted H-back turned All-American linebacker Anthony Barr sacks Barkley, the full weight of both their bodies landing on Barkley’s shoulder – end of collegiate career. Get ready for Pro Day and the Combines.

Trojans go to 7-4 overall and a reduced impact date with The Irish in South Bend. Surprise, look who’s Number One now.

Bruins go to 9-3, Jim Mora tying Terry Donahue for most wins for a first-year UCLA head coach. UCLA clinches the championship of the Pac-12 South Division, next week’s final regular season game more important to Stanford and Oregon. Win or lose against The Tree on this same field Friday night, the Bruins will play the Pac-12 championship game on the road.

The Bruin players dash to the student section in the far corner opposite our seats. The UCLA Band plays on. The Trojan players trudge out of the stadium.

I am soaking wet, my black leather dress gloves bleeding dye that discolors my hands. Other than that I’m dry under my clothes. I’ll need to wear rain or ski gloves next time.

Bob and I watch the celebrations for a while, let the throngs exit the Rose Bowl, pick our way past the Trojan Band playing to grey concrete of an almost deserted section that had been clothed in red all game, find the serpentine line to board the shuttle buses to Parsons Engineering parking lot.

Hey, a glorious Saturday of football at the New Year’s Day site of the Granddaddy of Them All. An exciting game, a competitive game – eventually. Both teams came to play, it was the Bruins day.

The Victory Bell comes home for a coat of bright blue paint. Give me an eight-clap!

Sorry, Bob. Good luck against The Irish.

Advertisements

Intrigue in MLB Western Divisions

West Coast baseball is full of intrigue this year. Probably the biggest story is the bust of the two SoCal spending sprees. However, my favorite story is the three-team race – and as of May 22nd, the three-way tie for first – in the National League West between the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Giants.

Most pundits picked the Dodgers to dominate the NL West, with the Giants in their wake. A few thought – correctly – that the D-backs would be improved after delighting both B.J. Upton and the Braves by sending off arguably their best player. Turns out Arizona’s sound rotation is backed up by a dangerous lineup featuring the ever-improving power threat at first base, Paul Goldschmidt.

Goldie has power to all fields, a quick compact swing that’s easy to maintain. He has this in common with Buster Posey. Neither goes into an extended slump.

Goldschmidt also has made himself into a good fielder, progress that was far from predestined.

While noting Colorado’s improvements last year, few observers expected the Rockies to contend this year. After all, who could predict this to be the break out year for Dexter Fowler, the perennial five-tool prospect. Though his batting average remains low, when he connects he produces the long ball. Hard to pitch around both Dex and Tulo.

In the field Fowler is a solid centerfielder. He’s got to be considered for the All-Star team this year. Married life agrees with this young star.

The Angels in fourth place in the AL West and the Dodgers in fifth place in the NL West both have expensive seasons with little to cheer about. The Rangers might have already buried the .400 Angels, as the Texas pitching staff seems too good to allow an epic collapse.

The Dodgers are just as bad, but are optimistic that Zack Greinke’s return can spark the team. With potentially the best pitching staff and best lineup in baseball, the men in blue are falling down in all areas. Though they are closer to first place than the Angels, they are looking up at three strong teams at the top. Those teams have been beating each other up instead of one or two running away from L.A., but then why worry about a team that can’t yet catch the Padres?

Meanwhile, the annual Dodger Blue nightmare plays out in an unexpected way: while mired in the cellar, the Dodgers see their Halloween-clad rivals share first place despite a sky-high rotation ERA and an uncharacteristically error-prone defense. Even Giants faithful must be shocked that the Giants have driven in the third most runs in the league. This despite nagging injuries and illness in the G-men’s lineup.

I’m enjoying the spirited competition in the NL West, which I see going all the way to the wire. Meanwhile, I’m making no call as to which L.A. team comes around before it’s too late. If either.