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.

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Bowl Victory Belongs to the Excited Team – Jan 2, 2013

We see this every bowl season – teams that are excited to be in a particular bowl play up to their capability while other teams play as if their venue is beneath them.

Stanford and Wisconsin were both pleased to be part of a traditional Big Ten versus Pac-12 matchup in The Granddaddy Of Them All, the Rose Bowl. For the first quarter and half of the second Florida seemed bored being in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, playing as if a non-championship BCS game against a Big East team would be a walk-through.

The result: a Rose Bowl classic and a Sugar Bowl first half that Florida would rather forget. Which is consistent, because the Gators certainly forgot to bring their “A” game for the kickoff.

A full and enthusiastic full house in Pasadena rooted on an old-school example of power football. Two teams that run behind tight ends and a fullback lead on offense, mixing in some play-action to keep the defense honest. Both defenses physical and aggressive, true to their character, played the run and read pass to pressure the quarterback and cover well.

Stanford executed flawlessly on the opening drive, running scripted plays all the way to the end zone. The Cardinal ran almost half the first quarter clock on that drive.

Stanford’s defense made a quick stop and got off the field. The offense marched down again, 14-0. Two touchdowns on two possessions to dominate the first quarter.

Wisconsin answered in the second quarter with balanced play calling and a tweaked defense. Stanford prevailed, but Wisconsin was in it until the end.

Thousands of Sugar Bowl seats went unpurchased by Florida fans. Louisville fans showed up in force. The teams reflect the unbalanced enthusiasm. Louisville DB in good coverage on the opening play of the game. Driskel’s pass off target, receiver gets fingertips on it, DB does the tip drill – pick six. Louisville gets a defensive stop, long march to second touchdown – 14-0.

This, however, is a different two-touchdown lead from the Rose Bowl. Florida is not being true to character. The Gators are getting stuffed on the run. They don’t convert on third downs. They don’t protect the pocket. Their defense gets burned.

The Gators get on the board with a field goal at the start of second quarter. They finally wake up at the end of the half to score a touchdown.

The Cardinals score on their first four possessions and hold a 24-10 halftime lead.

The only way Florida acts like the team that only lost one game all season? The Gators, most penalized team in the SEC, pick up eight penalties in the first half.

Second half I’m watching the same Sugar Bowl. Florida plays out of character from the kickoff, going for their first onside kick attempt of the entire season. I think ESPN’s Chris Spielman is right, it’s a sign of desperation.

Credit Louisville Head Coach Charlie Strong for having his “hands team” on the field. A receiver collected the onside kick and wrapped his body around it.

A Gator on the kickoff team commits two personal fouls and gets ejected from the game. Both fouls are enforced, putting the ball on the Gator 19-yardline. Terry Bridgewater immediately throws into the end zone – Louisville 30, Florida 10.

The entire third quarter Louisville moves the ball, Florida does not. Louisville squanders additional scoring opportunities, missing an extra point, two field goals, and gets no points after a goal-to-go opportunity. Louisville maintains a twenty-point lead by pressuring Driskel and sacking him. Florida does not have the receivers to stretch the field and when they are open Driskel holds the ball too long.

Finally, with 1:46 remaining in the third quarter, Florida makes a play. A D-lineman tips a Bridgewater pass and the defensive back alertly pushes the receiver out of the way – permitted after the tip, Spielman points out – and secures the interception. Starting this drive in Louisville territory, Florida runs the ball like Florida as the third quarter ends.

Switching to the other end of the field, Florida takes advantage of Lousville’s excellent pursuit with a reverse for a first down. The Gators follow up with a nicely developing screen pass. Two nice calls in a row – but Driskel fails again to get the ball out again, hit and almost sacked as he throws incomplete.

A couple runs get stuffed. Driskel passes again, too high – Louisville DB Andrew Johnson intercepts in the end zone and returns it to the 20-yardline.

12:48 left in the game, Bridgewater milking the clock. Another running play keeps the defense honest. Bridgewater completes a pass for a first down.

A couple plays later Bridgewater passes for another first down, then he hands off and for the first time in the game Louisville gains serious yardage on the ground. Nine yards on one carry, twenty-five on another – this last the longest run from scrimmage the Gators have allowed all season. Louisville marches deep enough for their kicker to make a thirty-yard field goal. Louisville up 33-10 with just 7:54 left on the clock.

Louisville native Muhammad Ali participated in the pregame coin toss. A Cardinals fan holds up a sign with a photo of Ali in the ring standing over Sonny Liston with the caption, “We shocked the world!”

Under eight minutes to go, wrapped up, right? Except Louisville has the worst Big East kickoff coverage. Florida runs back the kick for a touchdown. 33-17.

Florida head coach Will Muschamp gambles again with an onside kick because Florida hasn’t stopped Louisville yet. Kick goes out of bounds, plus five yards for another Florida penalty (off sides).

Gators finally get a stop, but Louisville downs their first punt of the night (!) on the Florida 3-yardline. DE Preston Brown almost sacks Driskel again, almost intercepted.

Gillesley rushes to the 20-yardline, a 17-yard gain. Driskel hits a pass for another first down, another short pass, 4:30 left and counting. Driskel scrambles but gets tackled short. On third down he converts on another pass. Time stops for an injury, but there’s only 3:46 left and Florida is sixteen points down.

A couple incompletions, a big gain to the Louisville 2-yardline, a loss to the 5-yardline and time run off the clock, then a nice tight end delay for a touchdown pass. Florida is still alive.

Until Louisville sacks Driskel on the 2-point conversion attempt. Louisville grabs the onside kick with a minute and a half left and a ten-point lead. Louisville actually makes yardage and gets a first down, takes a couple knees, and celebrates a 33-23 win – Sugar Bowl champions.

Louisville head coach Charlie Strong turned down offers from Tennessee and other programs that were hiring. Teddy Bridgewater says after the game, “I thought Coach Strong was gone, him staying shows the loyalty he has to these players.” After the championship trophy goes to Charlie Strong, Bridgewater receives the Sugar Bowl Most Outstanding Player trophy.

Louisville has spent a lot in facilities upgrades and will move the ACC. In Coach Strong’s third year the future looks bright.

Florida, two-touchdown favorites, will hurt for a while, but with a top recruiting class the Gators might actually be better next year.