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BLANK Expressions

No one likes to say a team quit, but Bruins gave every indication of it during last year's 27-0 loss to USC

November 22, 2002|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Hours before last year's big game, the UCLA football team was milling around the Coliseum, checking the field, when the USC players arrived. As is their custom, the Trojans entered the stadium by walking en masse down the peristyle steps.

Suddenly, the rivals stood face to face.

"We were staring each other down," former USC defensive back Antuan Simmons recalled. "Somebody might have said something."

Radio commentator Matt Stevens, standing on the sideline for his pregame show, glanced around for security guards, thinking a brawl might erupt.

Then something unexpected happened. As Stevens saw it, the Bruins quietly parted to let their opponents through.

"They just sort of backed off," said Stevens, a quarterback at UCLA in the mid-1980s. "The teams I played for, there would have been a confrontation. But last year's team had no fight in them."

The Trojans won, 27-0. With the schools set to renew their cross-town rivalry at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, people still talk about the game as an anomaly, a glitch in an otherwise storied history between these schools.

It was the widest margin of victory in more than two decades and the first shutout since 1954. Beyond the numbers, there was little of the intensity, the back-and-forth action, that fans expect.

"I never use the words 'give up' because I don't want to hang something like that on kids," said Artie Gigantino, a former USC assistant and current Fox Sports Net analyst. "But, no, I'd never seen a USC-UCLA game like that. I just think UCLA was in a state of shock."

Stevens was harsher. "I saw half of the UCLA players trying," he said. "I saw the other half quitting."

In hindsight, there was good reason to expect a mismatch.

The Trojans came in on a roll, rebounding from a shaky start to win four of five games. The players were growing comfortable with new Coach Pete Carroll and, the week before, had flattened lowly California, 55-14.

"The Cal game was big because we won in big fashion," receiver Keary Colbert said. "That always gives you confidence."

The Bruins were headed the opposite direction.

They had started by winning six in a row and climbing to No. 4 in the polls. Then came losses to Stanford, Washington State and Oregon.

Worse, tailback DeShaun Foster was caught driving a Ford Expedition lent to him by a Hollywood director and was suspended for the rest of the season. Two days before the USC game, the team learned that quarterback Cory Paus had been hiding two alcohol-related driving convictions and was facing jail time.

The controversy only intensified when Coach Bob Toledo decided to let Paus play.

All of this pressure came to bear on a Bruin roster loaded with seniors who could, if they so chose, look ahead to the NFL draft.

"Obviously we had some issues at the end of the season," said former quarterback Scott McEwan, who replaced Paus in the fourth quarter. "We just didn't have any momentum whatsoever. It was a downhill spiral from the kickoff."

The Trojans drove 80 yards on the opening possession, Carson Palmer throwing a short touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead. Paus, on the other hand, was having the worst game of his career, pestered by effective and persistent blitzes.

UCLA tight end Mike Seidman insists none of his teammates let up. But, by most accounts, a freak play at the end of the first quarter extinguished whatever fire the Bruins could muster.

It was a simple pattern, Paus throwing toward the sideline. The pass thudded off receiver Brian Poli-Dixon's shoulder pads.

As the ball fell toward the ground, Simmons swiped at it with one hand and trapped it against the outside of his knee. He brought it around behind him and up through his legs.

Poli-Dixon made no move to tackle the defensive back. He simply stood there, spitting out his mouthpiece, as Simmons took off toward the end zone to give his team a 14-0 lead.

Worse yet, the whole thing happened in front of the UCLA bench.

"That was a big deal," Toledo recalled. "A weird play. It really turned the momentum."

USC offensive lineman Zach Wilson waited for the Bruins to mount a comeback, waited for the kind of turnaround that -- growing up in Southern California -- he recalled from cross-town games over the years.

But UCLA managed only 28 yards on the ground -- not much more by air -- and never drove inside the USC 20-yard line. Though no one likes to use the word "quit" with high-caliber athletes, Seidman said afterward: "It seemed like we weren't there ... we didn't show up."

In the other locker room, USC players talked about looking across the line of scrimmage and seeing rivals who had "checked out" and "lost interest."

"It never really seemed like they wanted it real bad," Palmer said at the time. "You could tell by the way our line was pushing them around. It just didn't seem like they were hungry."

Gigantino could not help comparing the game to others he had coached and watched.

"I was a little bit surprised," he said. "These games have always been so competitive."

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