I’m going to start this whole thing with a song. And fair warning, there is some explicit language present.
That song is Mo Bamba by Sheck Wes and it is an absolute banger of a song.
Why start with that song, you may be asking? Because at the end of the 3rd quarter, the clean version of that song played in the Rose Bowl as part of a hype package to get the Bruin faithful ready for the 4th quarter. At that point in the game, Southern Cal was up 27-21, was driving into UCLA territory, and could smell a knockout blow coming. So, when the song came on, the Trojans danced. And danced. And danced and danced and danced, and slowly moved closer and closer to midfield.
In fact, Chip Kelly began to make a chopping motion with his hands and the team followed suit. Joshua Kelley mentioned in his post-game interview that it was a reference to a saying the team had adopted in the previous week of practice, that they needed to keep chopping away and doing their jobs and ignore the taunts of the Trojans.
The rest, as they say, is history. Southern Cal immediately went backwards to start the 4th quarter and was forced to punt instead of kick a field goal. The Bruins immediately drove 97 yards, capped by Joshua Kelley’s 55-yard touchdown run, to retake the lead. From that point on the Bruins dominated the game and won the Crosstown Rivalry, 34-27.
After the Oklahoma game, I wrote that the Chip Kelly era was going to be a process and, in every aspect, this first season has been. An abnormally large number of players left the program either due to medical retirement or, more commonly, seeing the writing on the wall and choosing to leave. Injuries have also devastated the team. By kickoff on Saturday, UCLA was down to 57 scholarship athletes who were healthy enough to play, barely enough to form a working two-deep depth chart. Throw in a ton of youth (20 freshmen) and new schemes, and the growing pains this season have been noticeable. The Eye Test, in particular, has been pretty brutal to write at times.
Yet even through this rough season, there have been signs that Chip Kelly was changing things for the better. UCLA’s run game, which had been a problem in recent years, grew into a bonafide strength with the blossoming of Kelley, while the offensive line, long a sore spot for fans of the program, became a cohesive unit. The defense, while struggling, showed signs here and there that growth was occurring.
More than anything else, throughout the season we saw a team that completely bought in to the vision that their coach was selling. UCLA players constantly repeated mantras in practice interviews, talking about how they refused to focus on the past and how they were striving to be better each time they took the field. And you could see it throughout the season. To be sure, the progress was not a straight line, but it came, inch by inch.
While this is a UCLA blog, but if you’ll permit me, I’d like to talk about Southern Cal for a bit as well.
Like many of you, I have quite a few friends who happen to have made the poor life decision of rooting for Southern Cal. I’ve spent a good amount of time this season following the Trojans through their downward spiral. Honestly, it’s been a nice diversion to watch our rivals slowly break as things did not go the way they were expecting.
The best part is how utterly predictable the whole thing was: the Trojans in recent years have not had an actual offensive system, instead relying on a great college quarterback (and whatever your opinion of him, Sam Darnold really was a great college quarterback) to make hero plays repeatedly, relying on pure talent to move the ball. The same occurred on the defensive side of the ball, where the large amount of talent was able to cover up a lack of a system. Development did not occur at Southern Cal. Players did not get better throughout their time on campus. And reports made it increasingly clear that Southern Cal had taken on the reputation of a program run by the players and not the coaching staff. The Trojans were adrift, but could rely on having more talent than their opponents much, if not most, of the time.
So, it made perfect sense that, with Sam Darnold gone, that the wheels would start to fall off for Clay Helton’s squad. JT Daniels is a true freshman quarterback in every sense of the word and is prone to making mistakes at inopportune times. The defense, once it lost a top-end talent like Porter Gustin, also fell apart, proving incapable of stopping the run (and making UCLA’s run defense look competent by comparison). And, like many a team lacking an identity, their inability to close games in the 4th quarter would repeatedly come back to bite them in the second half of the year.
Let’s go back to the dancing.
If there was anything that was emblematic of both programs at this moment in time, it was the dancing. The Trojans, who had a reputation of taunting opponents this year (which even cost them the game against UC Berkeley the previous week) decided to play the same card they’d played all year, while their fans in the stands watched and shook their heads. It was emblematic of their season to date and the program that Southern Cal had become: a program defined by its false sense of bravado than anything else.
This is because, again, the Trojans immediately committed a holding penalty to start the 4th quarter, which took them out of field goal range, and forced them to punt. The Trojans would not gain a 1st down in the 4th quarter until their final drive of the game, instead throwing an interception and a three and out. Meanwhile, the Bruins stayed true to the identity they had forged throughout the season, running the ball at the Trojan defense and limiting mistakes.
That was the true story of this game. Yes, Joshua Kelley became a folk hero. Wilton Speight finally got to win a rivalry game. The Bruin defense made the timely stops that had eluded them so often this season. But, at the end of the day, UCLA clearly looked like a team that had grown throughout the season and the program that has a much brighter future. They played harder and smarter. It was good football and that was the difference.
But at least Southern Cal got to dance.