One of the most historic rivalries in all of college football. Right up there with Ohio State vs Michigan, Alabama vs Auburn, and Florida State vs Miami. USC and UCLA face off for their annual battle for LA inside the Coliseum this weekend. The game has bowl and Pac 12 South implications on the line for both teams. No matter how high or low the stakes appear to be, this game always has a lot riding on it due to the bitter rivalry that is entrenched on each campus and in each locker room.
We take a look back at the five best games between the two teams within the last 25 years. We get to relive some memories from each side that included both heartbreak and glory throughout the last quarter-century. Let’s take a look at which games made the list.
2018 – UCLA 34 USC 27
The most recent chapter in the UCLA and USC gridiron rivalry took place in Pasadena inside the Rose Bowl. While the only thing motivating the 2-8 UCLA squad in this one was pride, the 5-5 USC team was on the verge of missing a bowl game for the first time since the 2011 sanction-riddled season.
Chip Kelly‘s inaugural season with UCLA was simultaneously rumored to be Clay Helton‘s final at USC. 2018 was the first matchup between Helton and Kelly. The Bruins and Trojans scored three touchdowns apiece throughout the first half but a Michael Brown field goal gave USC a three-point advantage going into halftime.
The defenses stepped up in the second half and a second field goal from Brown extended USC’s lead to 27-21 going into the final quarter of play. UCLA took a one-point lead on a 55-yard Joshua Kelley touchdown run. This play was a small chunk of Kelley’s near record-breaking 289-yard, two-touchdown performance. Two field goals were added by JJ Molson to cushion the lead a bit more.
The Trojans had two and a half minutes to drive down and try to force overtime. Freshman quarterback JT Daniels led the offense to the Bruin 31 yard line but stalled out. On a 4th and four play, Daniels missed fellow freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown and the ball fell harmlessly to the Rose Bowl grass. UCLA took the win 34-27.
2000 – USC 38 UCLA 35
A matchup between the Trojans and Bruins when neither team was sporting great records. USC had begun the year ranked in the top 25 but a five-game losing streak dashed any hope of a traditional USC season and they entered the rivalry game 4-6. UCLA came in 6-4 and already bowl eligible.
Future Heisman winner and number one overall pick, Carson Palmer and UCLA quarterback Cory Paus went toe-to-toe throughout the entire contest. The game was all knotted up at 21 at the intermission. The third quarter was no different as Paus and Palmer kept up their play. Each threw a touchdown and entering the last fifteen minutes of play, the game was tied 28-28
With just under four minutes remaining, Palmer hit Steve Stevenson for a 57-yard touchdown pass to take the lead. Then, Paus and UCLA would answer late when Paus was able to find pay dirt from one yard out. With the game appearing to be heading for overtime, something that had happened only once in the USC/UCLA rivalry, which we will get to here in just a bit, USC ended any chance of overtime.
Trojan kicker David Bell benefitted from Palmer’s late-game drive and hit a 36-yard field goal with only nine seconds left to give the Trojans a three-point lead. That lead shortly became a three-point win in one of the best games in the historic rivalry. The game doesn’t get the recognition it deserves due to the lack of appeal surrounding it. However, it was one of the best finishes in the rivalry.
1996 – UCLA 48 USC 41
Bob Toledo took over for UCLA legend Terry Donahue in 1996 and had his team 4-6 entering his first UCLA/USC game as a head coach. On the other sideline, USC’s John Robinson was potentially coaching his final game against the crosstown rival thanks to lofty preseason expectations falling way short. USC was 5-5 walking into the Rose Bowl.
USC lept out to a 17-point lead thanks largely to freshman receiver R. Jay Soward and his record-breaking performance throughout the day. At the end of the first half, USC maintained their 17-point lead with a score of 24-7. With 11 minutes remaining in the game, the Trojans found themselves up 38-21.
UCLA then proceeded to chip away at the USC lead. Following a nice drive from UCLA and an emphatically costly fumble by the Trojans, all of a sudden UCLA was only down seven with possession and momentum. A huge 23-yard completion from Cade McNown to Rodney Lee set up a Skip Hicks touchdown run. After the PAT, UCLA had come all the way back to tie the game at 38.
USC had one last drive to try and kick a game-winning field goal. A great diving reception made by Chris Miller despite a defensive pass interference call gave USC almost certain victory. An end zone shot fell just out of reach of receiver Mike Bastianelli and following the incompletion, USC had five seconds remaining. Adam Abrams lined up to kick his team to victory, however, UCLA blocked the kick and time ran out on regulation. For the first and only time in the history of the rivalry, the game was heading for overtime.
The first overtime period was an exchanging of field goals. The second overtime period belonged to UCLA. Hicks ran it in once again to put UCLA on top 48-41. USC needed a touchdown to keep the game alive. Quarterback Matt Koffler dropped back and was pressured and sent up an absolute prayer of a pass as he was being dragged down. Bruin safety Anthony Cobbs resembled a punt returner fielding a kick in the end zone. Cobbs ended the game with the interception thus sealing a UCLA comeback for the ages.
2004 – USC 29 UCLA 24
The undefeated 2004 Trojans are one of the greatest college football teams we have ever seen. However, what if I told you that one of the greatest college football teams of all time nearly missed their chance at playing for a national championship? While the 2004 National Championship season is “vacated” due to violations, we all know that on January 5th, 2005 USC beat down fellow undefeated Oklahoma 55-19. Holding freshman sensation Adrian Peterson scoreless and under 100 rushing yards for only the second time all season.
Oh but I digress. In the final game of the regular season and exactly one month before the Orange Bowl would decide who the BCS Trophy would go to, #1 USC and UCLA would meet. Many did not expect much of a contest as USC had been cruising to wins and UCLA came in with a record of 6-4. USC took a 20-10 lead into the locker room and the second half blowout was seemingly imminent.
Of course though, during rivalry games, any preconceived notions must be thrown out the window. UCLA’s defense was able to hold the Trojan offense to only nine points in the second half. UCLA’s offense still struggled to put points on the board but after the third quarter, UCLA only trailed USC 23-17.
A couple of field goals in the fourth put USC back up 29-17 with under four minutes to play. A great effort from Drew Olson to narrowly avoid two USC defenders led to a 39-yard completion to wide receiver Junior Taylor who made a diving effort to haul in the pass. No doubt a play that would’ve been much more memorable had UCLA been able to complete the comeback.
Four plays and two minutes later, Olson found tight end Marcedes Lewis in the end zone on a pivotal fourth-down play. All of a sudden UCLA found themselves within five points of the biggest upset of the year. Backup Trojan quarterback Matt Cassel went up and got Justin Medlock‘s ensuing onside kick attempt. All USC had to do was get a first down or two and either extend the lead with a field goal or potentially run the clock out.
Instead, the unthinkable happened and Reggie Bush fumbled the ball and UCLA recovered it. With just under a minute left, UCLA had to go 86 yards to score the game-winning touchdown. The stage was set for an astonishing Hollywood ending. However, those hopes were dashed immediately when Jason Leach intercepted Olson on the very next play. USC would kneel once and squeak out as 29-24 victors.
Had USC lost to UCLA, we would’ve seen Oklahoma vs Auburn in the Orange Bowl game. The undefeated 2004 Auburn team has gone down as one of the best teams to not win the national championship. However, USC was undoubtedly the best team in the country that year even though they almost missed their chance to prove it.
2006 – UCLA 13 USC 9
Two years earlier, UCLA nearly ended USC’s chances at a national championship. In 2006, they were given yet another opportunity to do so. USC was 10-1, ranked #2 in the BCS rankings, and one win away from playing in an unprecedented fourth straight national championship. UCLA sported a 6-5 record with memories of missed chances in 2004.
Late in the first quarter, UCLA struck first with a Patrick Cowan touchdown run. A holding call on UCLA in the second quarter that occurred in the end zone gave USC their first points of the game on a safety. Then, right before half, C.J. Gable soared into the end zone on a toss play. Following the PAT, the Trojans took a 9-7 lead into the locker room.
Justin Medlock was able to send two field goals through the uprights in the second half, one in the third and one in the fourth. Late in the game, UCLA was grasping to a 13-9 lead. With only a minute and fifteen seconds remaining, USC was on the UCLA 18 yard line. With one last shot to eke out a win and make their fourth straight title game, USC quarterback John David Booty had his pass batted on the line of scrimmage. The man who batted it, Eric McNeal, was also able to make the interception.
USC forced UCLA to punt on the ensuing drive but gained possession with only five seconds left and pinned in their own territory. A hail mary attempt fell to the ground and signaled the celebration. After nearly completing the upset in 2004, UCLA pulled off the role of spoiler in 2006.