Trojans receiver Robert Woods drags Bruins cornerback Aaron Hester into… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Into the deepest darkness of a Pasadena night they played, as if this game between the two stumbling teams was too ugly to occur in the light of day.
Turns out, it was.
Turns out, the only way this game could have been salvaged would be to not play it all. But, hey, history being what it is, USC had no choice but to battle UCLA for the 80th time Saturday, and the Rose Bowl had no choice but to host it. And what do you know, a tiny miracle happened.
Somebody actually won.
One team is bowl banned, another team has been bowled over, but one of them actually ended the year as a winner, the Trojans taking a 28-14 victory in a game marked by turnovers, penalties, silliness and, well, sadness.
The Bruins trudged off their home field while their coach was being booed. The Trojans stayed behind to dance and sing with the band, but it was awkward, the last party of the year in the first week of December.
Rick Neuheisel, the UCLA coach whose team lost six of its last seven games and failed to qualify for a bowl when a bowl would have especially blessed them, tugged at his messy blond hair.
"At the end of the day, at the end of the season, what is comes down to is, we got close, but we didn't make the play," he said. "We have to be better ... we have to perform at a higher level to compete."
Lane Kiffin, the USC coach whose team went 8-5 in his rookie year but gave away three games in the final minute and never quite played up to its talent, rubbed his weary face.
"In a weird way, there's a sense of relief," he said. "All we have been through in this first year, it's a relief we can go on to Year Two ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â… and rebuild this back.ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â… This is not what USC football is all about."
Real emotion. Real nasty game. It was the first time in 30 years that this event has meant absolutely nothing in terms of postseason play. For the sake of the beauty that once embodied this rivalry, let's hope it's another 30 years before both teams are so irrelevant again.
A big chunk of Rose Bowl seats were empty. A large piece of credibility was missing. The only real fire was stoked by liquor and touch football, a parking lot game erupting in a brawl between dozens of fans that involved two stabbings and three arrests.
There were two heroes, both of them products of errors.
First, there was Malcolm Smith, the Trojan linebacker who simply took advantage of UCLA's inept mistakes. That would be Malcolm Smith, whose 68-yard touchdown return of Bruin running back Johnathan Franklin's fumble broke a 7-all tie in the second quarter. Smith also recovered a fumble in the third quarter, and, yes, this is the same Northridge kid who last year returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown in USC's victory. He's a senior, and the game was a worthy end to his college career.
Then there was Allen Bradford, who came out of a Coliseum-sized doghouse to rush for 220 yards with a 73-yard touchdown dash while also catching-and-running for a 47-yard score.
This being a night of mistakes, one of the first questions to Kiffin was: How could you mistakenly bench this guy for most of the season?
Before Saturday, since rushing for 223 yards on Oct. 2 against Washington, Bradford had carried the ball only 30 times in six games, in two games not touching it at all, and once leaving the bench for only one carry.
"Ball security was a big issue," Kiffin said. "Also, it was a matter of productivity."
It's kind of hard to be productive when you're not given a chance, isn't it?
That this game highlighted the season-long malaise suffered by both teams was most telling at the horrific start of the third quarter, when both squads dropped all illusions of competitiveness and simply pelted each other with stink bombs.
Early in the period, UCLA quarterback Richard Brehaut threw a perfect long pass that dropped gently into the arms of USC cornerback Nickell Robey. Moments later, USC quarterback Matt Barkley gave it right back, throwing it to Bruin cornerback Tony Dye.
But before the Trojans could wring their hands, Brehaut gave it back to them with a horrific backward pitch that bounced off the grasping hands of Anthony Barr, the fumble recovered by Smith. But an exchange of possessions later, Barkley gave it back with a pass right to cornerback Aaron Hester.
Said Neuheisel: "Some of the things that plague us continue to plague us. We can't make any excuses about it. We have to be better."
Said Kiffin: "It's still a disappointment. If you look back, there were so many games that we should have won, so many games that we just handed away."
The teams combined for two lost fumbles, three interceptions, 108 yards worth of penalties, including one that cost the Trojans a touchdown, an awful fake Trojan fake field goal, and weird play calling on both sides.