USC wins on a field goal.
Right, and the Trojans' coach, Paul Hackett, signs a long-term contract extension. And UCLA drops men's basketball as a varsity sport.
But, in an unusually wild chapter of a wild rivalry, the hero was the third-string kicker on a team that hasn't kicked straight all season. David Bell renewed the Trojans' city bragging rights for another year, making his first field goal of the season with nine seconds left to deliver a 38-35 victory over UCLA Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
The holder partially blocked the kick. The kick, from 36 yards, barely cleared the crossbar.
"It was the ugliest best kick I ever had in my life," Bell said.
Matt Nickels, the holder, put the ball on the ground but couldn't get his index finger out of the way in time. When Bell's foot hit the ball, Nickels heard a sickening thud.
"David's reaction was, uh-oh. I was watching him," Nickels said. "Then I looked back up and saw the crowd going crazy."
That would be the cardinal-and-gold half of a sellout crowd of 80,227. The Trojans and their fans celebrated their second consecutive victory over UCLA, after eight defeats in a row. Embattled quarterback Carson Palmer threw for 350 yards and a career-high four touchdowns as the Trojans shrugged off a season of frustration and won for themselves and for their beleaguered coach. In gratitude, the coach tipped his cap to his players.
"They have not pointed fingers. They have not blamed anybody," Hackett said. "Today was our finest hour."
The Trojans (5-6 overall, 2-6 Pacific 10 Conference) will finish with a non-winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1960-61. They finished tied for last place in the Pacific 10 Conference. The city championship will be the only championship for the Trojans this year, although they could spoil the season for Notre Dame next week.
"This was it for us," USC fullback Petros Papadakis said. "We're not going anywhere. This was our chance to come alive, and it was about time."
The Bruins (6-5, 3-5) will play in a bowl game, probably in Hawaii. They will get another chance to come alive, and they will need it to wash out the foul taste this one left in their mouths.
"We lost to the worst team in the Pac-10," UCLA receiver Brian Poli-Dixon said. "I'm just mad we didn't take advantage of the situation. We basically gave them the game."
UCLA Coach Bob Toledo has treaded lightly upon his defense all season, but no more. The Bruins blew four leads, gave up 557 yards of total offense--not a season high--and allowed USC to march 47 yards in less than a minute for the game-winning field goal. The Bruin defense also collapsed on third down yet again--USC converted nine of 14 third downs, Washington converted eight of 15 last week and Stanford converted eight of 18 two weeks ago.
"We let USC have the ball too much and they had too many conversions," Toledo said. "That was a terrible defensive display."
The Trojans took their first lead with 3:58 to play, on a 57-yard pass from Palmer to Steve Stevenson. The Bruins responded with a 75-yard drive, the first play a 51-yard pass from Cory Paus to Freddie Mitchell and the last a one-yard touchdown run by Paus on fourth-and-goal to tie the score, 35-35, with 1:05 to play.
"I was confident we were going to overtime," Mitchell said.
"I wish we had used some more time," Paus said.
As the Trojans moved the ball down the field--a 13-yard run by Malaefou MacKenzie, a 12-yard pass to Kareem Kelly, a five-yard pass to Antoine Harris, a 10-yard holding penalty against UCLA, a seven-yard run by MacKenzie--the Trojan fans held their collective breath.
Could this game come down to a field goal? Could USC possibly win if it did?
As the USC kicker, Bell had replaced the injured John Wall, who had replaced the ineffective David Newbury. In the second quarter, rather than allow Bell to try a 36-yard field goal, Hackett opted for a fake. In the fourth quarter, Bell missed a 24-yard field goal, wide left and not close.
With the miss, Bell was 0 for 3 on field goals this season, and the Trojans were nine for 17.
At that point, Hackett ordered Wall to warm up, despite his groin injury. After the Trojans scored on the pass to Stevenson, Wall even ran out onto the field, expecting to try the conversion.
But Hackett called him back. After Wall started practicing, Hackett had confronted Bell along the sideline and asked him two questions: Do you want me to put Wall in? Can I count on you to win the game?
"You can count on me," Bell said.
Said Hackett afterward, "I couldn't be prouder of him."
During the past week, the video machines in USC's Heritage Hall replayed great moments in the history of the USC-UCLA game, over and over. Great games. Great finishes. Unlikely heroes.
A teammate kidded Bell that he could join that highlight reel, that he could become forever etched in Trojan lore. No joke now. Bell, a heretofore anonymous senior, won the last UCLA game of his career.