Plaschke: A title path is clear for USC after triumph over UCLA

Late last summer, this columnist asked Lincoln Riley about his expectations for this season.

“To win the championship,” he said.

he was crazy He was cocky. He was right.

Incredibly, after 11 games, Riley’s USC football team is poised to live up to the wildest of expectations in the most extravagant ways.

Incredibly, less than a year after a 4-8 debacle, the Trojans are riding a 10-1 dream after an unexpectedly strong 48-45 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

Unexpected, at least in this area, because the choice fell on the Bruins.

Mighty ’cause boy was I wrong

The Bruins were predicted to have the better quarterback, but while Dorian Thompson-Robinson was spectacularly tough, he made four turnovers while Caleb Williams was Heisman-good. Seriously, send this young man to New York City after amassing a total of 503 yards and three touchdowns while playing 32 of 43 for 470 passing yards. In case you were wondering, yes, 503 yards is the highest individual aggregate rush in the series’ 92-game history.

The Bruins were also predicted to have the better of two poor defenses, but the Trojans held when needed – including UCLA’s last potential play, and edged the Bruins 649-507.

Eventually, the Bruins were predicted to have obvious home advantage, but USC fans filled an end zone and howled through the night as their team put on inspirational game after game.

USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks with UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson after the Trojans' win November 19, 2022.

Trojans coach Lincoln Riley speaks with Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson following Saturday night’s USC win. The Trojans’ late interception of Thompson-Robinson sealed the win.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The final moment of inspiration came in the closing minutes of the game as Korey Foreman intercepted Thompson-Robinson in midfield to claim the win.

“We are… SC!” chanted their fans and in fact they are right.

The Trojans are Trojans once again, even joining in their typical street party, rushing to the marching band and dancing to the music.

The championship path for the seventh-ranked Trojans is now clear. If USC beats Notre Dame next week and then wins the Dec. 2 Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas, they will almost certainly be selected as one of the four teams selected for the final four of the college football playoffs, with the Championship to be played on January 9th at SoFi Stadium.

So, yes, last season the Trojans are still playing for a championship by avenging a 62-33 drubbing by the Bruins.

“We didn’t come here to play for second place, we’re not wired that way,” Riley said that late summer day. “We came here to win championships, to win them now and to win them for a long time.”

Could this time begin now? It didn’t look like it at the start of Saturday’s game.

USC came in with 26 transfers and seemingly little idea of ​​the extent of this crosstown rivalry.

“We’re treating it like a different game, just like any other game we’ve been in,” Williams said before the game. “I’ve been in other big rivalry games so far in my career so I treat it like another game.”

USC's Korey Foreman (0) celebrates his winning interception against UCLA late in the fourth quarter on November 19, 2022.

USC’s Korey Foreman (0) celebrates his winning interception against UCLA late in the fourth quarter in the Rose Bowl.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA countered with fifth-grader Thompson-Robinson, who did exactly the opposite and fueled the rivalry even more.

“Obviously I know what’s at stake and I’m trying to teach my younger teammates the tradition and everything that goes into this game,” he said ahead of the game. “Obviously we hate these guys around town, it’s a bittersweet feeling with these guys.”

There was a definite difference in intensity, and early in the game it showed as USC fell 14-0 behind in front of a roaring crowd that sensed an escape.

On USC’s first possession, the Trojans rushed for 54 yards in 10 games, but it was all for nothing when Williams was stuffed on the fourth and one on the UCLA 21-yard line.

After the Trojans’ defense held the Bruins, the offense regained control, driving for 41 yards in five games to set up Denis Lynch for a 32-yard field goal attempt. But he missed wide left, ruining the second of two big early opportunities for Trojan before UCLA had scored a point.

After UCLA found their offense and fielded 80 yards to score on a Thompson-Robinson sneak, USC screwed up again when Williams committed only his third interception of the season, a poor pass that was Kain’s Madrano was intercepted in midfield.

In the next game, Thompson-Robinson found Michael Ezeike open on the right touchline for a 30-yard touchdown pass and an eventual 14-0 UCLA lead.

blowout happened? Not quite. USC fought back to score on drives of 72.75 and 79 yards.

Williams ran six yards for a touchdown, Austin Jones ran eight yards for another touchdown, and Lynch kicked a 44-yard field goal.

It was enough to keep the Trojans tight against an equally unstoppable UCLA onslaught, and then USC had a great chance to take the lead late in the first half when Mekhi Blackmon stepped in front of a Thompson-Robinson pass and returned it to the USC 35-yard line in the final minutes.

But in third place deep in Bruin territory, Brenden Rice dropped a pass, then Lynch missed a 33-yard field goal wide left, his second miss of the night.

But the Trojans weren’t done yet. On the UCLA drive that followed, Thompson-Robinson had his second interception in two possessions, this time plucked from the air by a leaping Shane Lee. Three games later, Lynch was missing a 49-yard field goal, but UCLA’s Chip Kelly had called a time-out, so they let the game run again, and this time Lynch hit it and ended the half with a 21-20 lead of UCLA.

The result was misleading as USC had surpassed UCLA 368-224 while averaging a staggering 8.4 yards per carry. The Trojans were a point behind but could easily have led by at least two touchdowns.

The Bruins reeled off an 11-play drive to start the third quarter, but USC eventually held and the Bruins had to settle for a 46-yard field goal from Nicholas Barr-Mira to give them a 24- 20 lead to gain.

USC took over and four games later Williams found Jordan Addison all alone on the right touchline for a 35-yard touchdown pass to give the Trojans their first 27-24 lead with 8:50 in the third quarter.

You never chased me again.

And surprisingly, this is where the real fun begins. Plaschke: A title path is clear for USC after triumph over UCLA

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