I think about the 2012 victory over Southern Cal a lot.
I was at that game, sitting in the stands in section 3 surrounded by UCLA fans (and some Southern Cal fans, as you’d expect). The feeling leading up to the game was that the Bruins should be expected to win the game, despite years and years of incompetence and poor results, yet I can guarantee that most UCLA fans went into the game with a pit in their stomach, because you can never take a victory over Southern Cal as a given. Even as UCLA raced out to a 24-0 second quarter lead, you still felt that dread in your stomach, especially as the Trojans raced back to cut the lead to 4 early in the 3rd quarter.
I’m providing context so that you can better understand that my lasting memory of that game was the rain.
Late in the second half, a light drizzle began to fall over the stadium. The Trojans had just cut the lead to 31-28, and the conventional wisdom was that Southern Cal was more equipped for success in the rain due to their strong running game. Yet as that rain started to fall in the Rose Bowl, the only thought that crossed my mind was this:
“We’re going to win the game.”
I’ll never know what about the rain gave me that confidence, but the rest, as they say, is history. UCLA drove down the field and the Mayor Johnathan Franklin ran in the clinching touchdown with 4:02 remaining, and then Anthony Barr laid the Hit Heard Round the World. The 38-28 victory may not have represented the seismic shift in the rivalry we all hoped it would be at the time, but it was, at the very least, a cathartic release.
There’s something about a victory that can make you forget everything bad that came before.
That statement feels....obvious, in retrospect, but it’s something we don’t acknowledge enough in the moment. The euphoria you experience in the immediate aftermath makes it harder to recognize the faults that almost kept you from that moment, and this applies outside the realm of sports as well. A job offer might make you forget some poor interview responses you gave. Cooking a tasty meal might make you forget the first roux that you burned in the process. Getting the internet to work might make you forget the hours and hours you spent on the line with your internet provider angrily explaining that, yes, you did turn your modem off and on, and that did not fix the problem.
The point is, a victory is so powerful of an emotion that it can make all of the suffering feel like a worthy sacrifice. Maybe that’s why the rain on that November evening stuck out so much to me; it felt like the problems UCLA had endured for over a decade was being washed away, that UCLA was getting a clean slate that they could do whatever they wanted with. And that kind of feeling is almost addictive in nature - it’s why our entire weeks can be improved or ruined based on the results of a children’s game played every Saturday, because we’re constantly chasing the next high that a victory can bring us. We’ve even created ideas like “moral victories” just to give ourselves the rush of victory even in the depths of defeat.
But, of course, some victories are sweeter than others.
I wanted to spend time talking about the cleansing nature of some victories specifically because, in the aftermath of UCLA’s 37-7 victory over UC Berkeley, it was the only thing I could think of.
To be sure, there’s a lot of things I could be talking about. UCLA played a complete, dominant game from beginning to end, so I guess let’s spend a small amount of time talking about it. UCLA’s run game was, in a word, dominant, with Joshua Kelley’s 157 yards on 30 carries (5.2 YPC) and 3 touchdowns acting as an announcement to the rest of the conference that UCLA has turned its running game into a clear strength. The stat sheet will say that Dorian Thompson-Robinson only ran for 23 yards, but taking out sacks show that he added 49 yards with his feet, as the offense finally designed some QB runs while DTR clearly felt more comfortable making plays with his feet as the game progressed. Sticking with DTR, the offense was designed to make things easier on him, and he responded in kind with his best performance as a Bruin, going 13-15 for 141 yards and making some timely throws to keep the offense moving. And the playcalling was creative - sometimes too creative - in attacking a UC Berkeley defense that came into the game ranking 6th in Defensive S&P+ (a ranking that will clearly come down after this game).
The defense, as well, played an extremely clean game. Yes, it should be noted that the Golden Bear’s offense was, to put it kindly, extremely bad, but the defense still pitched a shutout in the first half, and really only allowed one good drive by their opposition. Oh yeah, and they forced 5 turnovers, 4 of them in the 4th quarter to ice the game away. Keisean Lucier-South accounted for three of them, as he intercepted one pass, forced one fumble, and scooped up a second one to score a touchdown. For a unit that had its share of issues coming into the game, this was a huge game to build on.
Let’s not forget special teams, which continues to be a huge strength. We may have gotten spoiled by guys like J.J. Molson and Stefan Flintoft, but watching UC Berkeley’s kicker get iced to end the half made me appreciate them that much more.
But all of those things are something we can break down in the days ahead (and make no mistake, that is exactly what we will be doing), because as stated, a victory can make us forget the negatives, and this win wasn’t as perfect as it feels like in this moment. And that’s ok! Nobody plays a perfect game, not even someone like Alabama. It means we still have something to strive for, something to chase as we keep looking for that next high.
As the fourth quarter wound down on the first win of the Chip Kelly era, I thought about that 2012 game against Southern Cal again.
There is just so much going on in that video. The roar of the crowd as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The UCLA players running and sliding into the center of the field in victory. The mass run of the team to go celebrate with the student section. Richard Brehaut, a guy who had been passed on the depth chart and could have been disgruntled, instead standing with the student section, perhaps more excited than they are. The McDermott brothers standing on the benches applauding the fans. Brett Hundley and Joe Fauria running around, looking lost, and eventually finding their way to a cheer stand to lead an 8-clap. Geoff Strand demanding Hundley ring the bell in victory. The empty Southern Cal sections.
It was, in so many ways, a release of pent-up energies.
The first win of the Chip Kelly era felt the same way. UCLA had been close this year - their youth was on full display as they let the game against Cincinnati slip away, they led on the road in the 2nd half against Colorado before collapsing, and hung around with a better Washington team - but a victory had proved elusive. And the UCLA program - the players, coaches, fans, and supporters - have endured ridicule and fought with each other while the losses piled up. It has not been a fun time around here by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet in the wake of this victory, all of those problems seem small and insignificant, like they’ve faded away. Suddenly anything is possible.
Bowl eligibility? Sure.
A share of the Pac-12 South Division title? Why not?
THE ROSE BOWL?
Ok, maybe that last one feels far off.
But at the same time, it doesn’t feel that far at all. This wasn’t a simple victory - this was the first victory. It was a victory that is going to capture our imaginations for the rest of the season, into the following offseason, hell this will still resonate next season because it felt SO good and represented exactly what we all believe UCLA can become under Chip Kelly.
And that’s a high that’s worthy of chasing.