One year ago, USC crushed its crosstown rival with a 66-point explosion. This outburst was triggered by an offensive line that bludgeoned the Bruins on virtually every single play. Even when faced with 2nd and 18 situations, the Trojans could line up, rear back, and toss the ball on a sweep to Reggie Bush, and score seven points. SC's big uglies in the trenches rendered the Bruins impotent.
This year, the outcome--like its source--was exactly the opposite.
Inspired by the fires of rivalry but coached up by new defensive coordinator Dwayne Walker, UCLA's defensive front lit up the Trojans on almost every snap. Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, along with the rest of their teammates, outhit and--yes--genuinely intimidated Troy's offensive line, which was tentative, soft and uncertain throughout a glistening afternoon in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains. John David Booty never felt comfortable in the pocket, which meant that Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett were never able to make even one home run play, just one long ball that would have turned the tide in a contest that ended with a four-point margin. USC's offense was sloppy and distracted in the Trojans' previous loss at Oregon State; this time around, and for the only time in 2006, USC's point-producing outfit was truly outworked and punched in the mouth. The Trojans threatened on their final drive, but when the time came to define champions, Booty couldn't get a ball over the UCLA defensive line, and senior Eric McNeal, in a play he'll tell his grandchildren 50 years from now, made a spectacular tip-and-pick to give SC its second straight stomach-punch loss in the very stadium where the Trojans will now play on New Year's Day. Yes, one of the many ironies in the aftermath of this shocker is that USC will be disappointed--sorely disappointed--to have attained its annual preseason goal: making the Rose Bowl.
On the other side of things, life just turned around 180 degrees for one Karl Dorrell. While coaches get unfairly crucified by fans in this industry for not showing outward emotion, it is nevertheless true that Dorrell coached this game with unusual passion, showing more juice in this battle than in all his prior games combined. His players clearly fed off the emotion Dorrell showed in repeated sideline exhortations, and it was this sustained energy--for 60 minutes, not the 58 and change at Notre Dame--that carried UCLA into the winner's circle for the first time in the last eight tries against USC. As a result, one of the few African-American head coaches in Division I-A ball might finally get a break from the ruthless criticism he's so often received.
And now, the final piece of this pigskin puzzle: an analysis of this game wouldn't be entirely complete without a word on the BCS mess UCLA's win has created. At press time, Florida leads Arkansas, 17-14, in the third quarter of the SEC title game. If the Hogs come back to win, this will become the game that sent Michigan to the BCS National Championship Game for a rematch against Ohio State. If the Gators hold on, however, outrage will erupt, one way or another. A pure political reading of the BCS standings and the mechanics of the system suggests that Michigan will advance even if Florida wins. However--and keep in mind that this is a hugely flawed system we have here, instead of the playoff or (at least) the plus-one this sport so desperately needs--if Florida does hold on, a fair comparison of Michigan's and Florida's schedules clearly suggests that Florida has done more to earn a title game shot, and should thereby travel to Glendale. If poll voters really cherish college football and its regular season--whom you play, whom you beat, whether you win your conference or not, and other supremely central factors--they will vote Florida second and do what they need to do to lift the Gators, not the Wolverines, to the Desert Southwest on January 8.
USC had its chance and blew it; now, if the debate is between Michigan and Florida--and Florida beats Arkansas--Ohio State's opponent in over a month should be Orange--not Maize--and Blue.