A calm settled over Caleb Williams, on a night at the Rose Bowl when that could be said about few others.
Touchdowns were traded back and forth. Turnovers too. Field goals were missed. Response after response after response was mounted, in the most dizzying night of the crosstown rivalry in recent memory, a rollicking roller coaster that No. 7 USC rode to a 48-45 victory and a berth in the Pac-12 title game.
The Trojans’ star quarterback had come to USC precisely for moments like these, with every chest in a sold-out Rose Bowl thumping and the season’s stakes heart-stoppingly high. He’d already put up more than 500 jaw-dropping yards of offense. Now it was up to him to put away No. 16 UCLA.
But when the ball was snapped on third down, the pocket promptly collapsed. USC’s star was sacked by UCLA’s Laiatu Latu, and the Trojans’ hopes suddenly were uncertain with time for UCLA, trailing by three, to mount one final drive.
That’s when an unexpected hero emerged to do what neither Williams nor any other Trojan could do.
Korey Foreman had come to USC out of Corona Centennial High as the nation’s top recruit, with the weight of expectation heavy on his shoulders. A billboard boldly announced the five-star’s arrival, his commitment supposedly symbolic of a turning of the tides in the Trojans’ recruiting. But nothing about his first two seasons had suggested a star was in the making.
Until Saturday, when Foreman found himself in perfect position in the biggest game of USC’s season, with UCLA trying to mount a winning drive. UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw a desperate, third-down pass toward receiver Kazmeir Allen. Foreman stepped in front — and into rivalry game lore — coming down with a game-sealing interception that sent the Trojans to the Pac-12 championship Dec. 2 in Las Vegas.
“You just never know when it’s going to be your moment,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said, “and he was ready.”
Few could’ve anticipated this after last year’s game. Riley was hired just eight days after UCLA wiped the floor with USC, en route to the Trojans’ 4-8 finish. They have lost just once under their new coach.
“If you would have told me at the end of last season, we’d go play for a championship this year, I’d call you a dead liar,” said wideout Kyle Ford, who had 73 yards and a touchdown Saturday.
Thompson-Robinson had done all he could to will UCLA to a second straight victory in the rivalry game. A year after hurdling his way into crosstown fame, the Bruins quarterback was bloodied and bruised by a Trojans defense that set out to beat him into oblivion. With his throwing hand taped, Thompson-Robinson said that at times he struggled to “get enough juice on the ball.”
“The kid’s a warrior,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “Dorian literally leaves it on the field every time he plays.”
UCLA’s fifth-year senior still accounted for six touchdowns and plenty more big plays to boot in his final game against USC. But the Trojans defense forced him into four turnovers, the most critical of which came in the second half. The pick from Foreman and a fumble forced by defensive tackle Tyrone Taleni gave the Trojans enough breaks to escape with a win.
Their defense allowed more than 500 yards for the third time in five weeks. But their front held the Pac-12’s top back to 95 yards rushing, just the second time any team has held Zach Charbonnet under the century mark this season.
And as leaky as USC’s defense was, UCLA’s defense gave up even more yards: 649, to be exact.
Of those, 503 belonged to Williams, the most of anyone in the crosstown rivalry in 92 meetings. USC’s quarterback completed 32 of 43 passes for 470 yards and three total touchdowns (one on the ground) in a performance that’s likely to thrust him toward the top of the Heisman race.
“You have to do everything against him, and we did,” Kelly said.
But it wasn’t enough, not with top target Jordan Addison torching UCLA’s suspect secondary for 11 catches, 178 yards and a touchdown. Or with Austin Jones, stepping up seamlessly for injured lead back Travis Dye, tallying 177 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. The two scored touchdowns slightly more than two minutes apart in the third quarter as the Trojans took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish — despite three consecutive touchdown drives by the Bruins down the stretch.
UCLA had led throughout the first half, missed opportunities by USC giving the Bruins every chance to put their stamp on the game. A red-zone fourth-and-one stop kept USC from scoring on its opening drive. A botched field goal from kicker Denis Lynch, his first of two misses on the day, left USC empty-handed once again.
UCLA struck first with a methodical, 14-play touchdown drive capped by the first of Thompson-Robinson’s two one-yard scoring runs. Then, Williams threw an interception, just his third of the season. UCLA needed just a single play to respond, as Thompson-Robinson found a wide-open Michael Ezeike for a 30-yard score, the first of the tight end’s three touchdowns.
“Not even thinking about flinching,” Riley said of that moment.
Regardless, it was tough to imagine a more nightmarish start for the Trojans. But with the offense still moving, it didn’t take long for them to claw their way back. Williams led a 10-play touchdown drive early in the second quarter, capped by a six-yard keeper for the score.
Soon enough, it was UCLA’s turn to shoot itself in the foot.
With a chance to score before halftime, Thompson-Robinson threw the first of his three interceptions. Kelly, seeking a score before the break, opted to use his timeouts to give the Bruins a second chance.
A second missed kick from Lynch gave them just that. But the decision still backfired, as Thompson-Robinson was intercepted again. Given another chance, Lynch didn’t miss a 49-yard kick to cut USC’s deficit to 21-20 at halftime.
The Trojans didn’t miss many opportunities from there. USC scored touchdowns on four straight drives to open the second half. Williams came alive. The defense forced timely turnovers.
And when it mattered most, it was the most unlikely of Trojans who finished the job, stealing away not only the Victory Bell from their rivals, but also a chance at something much bigger.
“You can tell those teddy bears we beat them,” center Brett Neilon said. “So they can say whatever they want, do whatever they want, but we run L.A., so I’m happy.”