That went from horrific to historic. Lost in the euphoria of Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s iconic performance, hidden in the glee of his phone continuing to blow up with showering praise and undoubtedly companies making everything from sharpies to hats to trampolines chasing him for Name Image & Likeness (NIL) deals, there was profound Shakespearean symbolism in the 91st edition of the Crosstown Rivalry.
The game’s pivotal play may have come before ANY of the Bruins’ recording-breaking 62 points were scored on a surprisingly chilly afternoon in the Coliseum. On UCLA’s third possession, down 3-0 with DTR having thrown interceptions on his first two pass ATTEMPTS of the game, the Bruins faced a 3rd & 12 from their own 4-yard line. With his QB as erratic as ever and the heart of the roaring USC crowd hovering over his team’s back, nobody would have blamed Chip Kelly for calling a conservative run play in the name of disciplined game management. But Kelly’s unflinching confidence in DTR showcased brightly in that moment. Another interception, a sack, or a holding call that would result in a safety be damned, DTR rewarded Kelly’s confidence with the creativity to survey the field and ultimately scramble for 13 yards and a fresh set of downs.
Three plays later, a gorgeous 37-yard deep seem for the laying-out Greg Dulcich. Two plays after that, a beautiful 45-yard TD pass to Kazmeir Allen on an up and in, where DTR found the coverage bust in USC’s zone and threw Allen open with a precise back shoulder pass. Game on.
That sequence demonstrated the two values that most epitomize the latest era of UCLA football: patience and loyalty. The patience and loyalty Kelly has shown with DTR for four years, the patience and loyalty AD Martin Jarmond will undoubtedly show Kelly in his return for a fifth year, and the patience and loyalty that will potentially pay big dividends as UCLA begins its ascent up the Mount Everest of college football.
Ironically, on the same day Kelly architected one of the biggest Bruin wins this century, the other job he was deciding on way back in 2017 abandoned its patience and loyalty. Florida’s firing of Dan Mullen only 12 months removed from a 29-6 start to his Florida career validated why Kelly picked UCLA. The college football landscape is in many ways, a microcosm of today’s society: the relentless hunt for instant gratification. While teams continue to fire coaches over short bursts of adversity, the Bruins are building something special brick-by-brick, even as fans and media continue to question that approach. Ask any person across any profession from any walk of life, to build something lasting from scratch takes a little time, a little patience and a little resilience.
The Bruins, for better or worse, are valuing process over outcome, because process leads to lasting outcomes, not simply fleeting ones.
Three Phases In Three Phases
There were three pivotal phases in the game, and a different aspect of the Bruins three units played a heroic role across each of them. The first critical phase was the first quarter half of the first quarter after DTR’s two interceptions. With USC already up 3-0 with an impressive opening drive that consisted of disciplined check downs to running backs and efficient ball control, the Trojans had two consecutive short fields to generate significant early separation. Quentin Lake erased USC’s first chance with a spectacular tipped interception on a deep curl route and an ensuing 20-yard return. The Trojans second opportunity was stalled due to aggressive blitzing from the Bruin defense coupled with disciplined and physical secondary play preventing any wide receiver separation. If USC capitalizes on those two DTR mistakes and goes up 13-0 or 17-0, we could be having an entirely different conversation.
A two or three-possession lead would’ve inevitably made DTR press (possibly leading to more mistakes) while simultaneously allowing USC to get their running back duo of Keaontay Ingram and Vavae Malepeai involved much earlier in the game to slow tempo and alleviate responsibility from Jaxson Dart’s first career start. For all the criticism, and rightfully so, directed to Jerry Azzinaro’s defense this year, the D saved the game for the Bruins, keeping things close until DTR found his sea legs. They epitomized the adage, “you can’t win the game in the first half, but you can certainly lose it.” This performance should not and will not save Azzinaro’s job, but that unit deserves major credit for not letting the game get away early.
The game’s second major phase came early in the second quarter, with USC leading 10-7, and had all the makings of a “last one with the ball wins” type shootout. A controversial offensive pass interference call on USC WR Tahj Washington erased a 31-yard pass play, and almost instantly took the belief out of the Men of Troy. The Bruins capitalized, outscoring their archrivals 28-7 as momentum snowballed with every homerun UCLA offensive strike. DTR was responsible for all four Bruin touchdowns on four consecutive drives: a brilliant 23-yard TD to Kyle Phillips on a 3rd down post-corner route, a breathtaking 58-yard deep-post TD to Allen in stride, a sublime 4-yard rushing TD that was more Hollywood than a Leonardo DiCaprio premiere, and another precise 7-yard shallow crossing route TD to Phillips on 3rd down on arguably the toughest red zone down and distance scenario in football.
That four-drive stretch to push the game to 35-17 was as dynamic, diverse, and deadly as the offense looked all year. The third major phase in the game was with five minutes left in the 3rd quarter and the Bruins still maintaining a 35-20 lead. UCLA was methodically driving for more points inevitably pushing the game back to three scores. It looked like USC would bleed a slow and painful death for the remainder of the game…until absolute chaos ensued. A frenetic 9-play sequence where momentum changed four different times could’ve swung the game in a myriad of directions.
It started with DTR taking a 10-yard sack on 3rd down. Nicholas Barr-Mira subsequently missed the 46-yard attempt to give USC the desperate stop they needed. The Trojans scored in the next two plays on back-to-back deep balls to WR Gary Bryant Jr. reviving the Trojan faithful. After USC inexplicably went for two and missed, Allen had an electrifying 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown where he accelerated through the hole, smoothly shuffled his feet to go outside from an inside move, and burned the two remaining Trojans for momentum reclaiming touchdown. Even at 42-26, Dart hit yet another deep strike to Bryant on the third play of the ensuing drive. With the Trojans surging to make it a one-score game yet again, Dart heaved a deep ball to the right endzone pylon, only to be intercepted by Cameron Johnson. Order restored.
The Bruins would subsequently catch their breath, run the ball systematically with Zach Charbonnet and turn the 4th quarter into glorified garbage time. But the special teams play of Allen was the single greatest moment of the game. Having their 18-point lead dwindled to nine, the defense beginning to show their inherent cracks of vulnerability and the energy of a largely pro-Trojan crowd back in the game, Allen and the special teams essentially saved the Victory Bell.
(So Much!) History Made Here
Through all the yards, highlights, and individual efforts, this game was DTR’s, Sistine Chapel. The 349 yards passing and six touchdowns only tell a fraction of the story. He was smooth with his arm and superhuman with his legs; no matter what happens from here on out, he will always be immortalized for this performance. It was the emblem of his Bruin career, and perhaps the greatest signature to ANY Bruin career ever. We’ll count from 1-5 what made Saturday so historic:
1: The most points ever scored by UCLA in the Crosstown Rivalry. It was also the first time an opposing player scored six touchdowns in the history of USC football. The 62 points tie the most points ever scored in the Coliseum and UCLA’s 29-point margin of victory was its largest over the Trojans since 1954, which was coincidentally the year of its only national championship.
2: It was only the second time the Bruins beat UCLA in the Coliseum since 1997, and coincidentally the 2013 victory was also by 20+ points. This was only the second time USC had ever given up 62 points in the Coliseum. The other? In 2012 versus Oregon, also led by Chip Kelly. DTR had two rushing touchdowns in this game and each one produced a transcendent moment.
The first was his designed QB 4-yard TD run to the left pylon. DTR scored, saw a young USC fan in the first row, who gave him a UCLA cap and a sharpie. Channeling the swagger of Terrell Owens on Monday Night Football almost 15 years ago, DTR signed the cap in a moment that could signify the changing of the guard in Los Angeles college football. 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty? Who cares, this was an ultimate superstar moment in Hollywood, the land of stars.
The second was his 15-yard TD run in the 4th quarter where hurdled Isaac Taylor-Stuart in stride, cruised into the end zone, and posed for the UCLA band. The perfect gymnastic combination of Najee Harris and Reggie Bush, DTR out USC’d USC. As the kids say, it was dripping swag.
3: It was only the third time USC had ever given up 62 points in a game. We mentioned the 2012 Oregon game and there was also a 2013 game at Arizona State, the infamous evening Lane Kiffin was fired by AD Pat Haden on the LAX tarmac. It also marks the opportunity for only UCLA’s 3rd “Double Victory” season since 1998, where UCLA can win the Victory Bell and their bowl game. It was also the third-most passing yards DTR has ever had, behind his 507 yards against Washington State and 367 yards against USC two years earlier.
4: This was only the fourth time in the past decade the Bruins scored 60+ points in a game. With a win against Cal and a victory in its bowl game, UCLA has a chance for a 9-win season for only the fourth time in the past 15 years.
Four UCLA players also had career days: DTR, Allen, Phillips, and Charbonnet. In addition to DTR’s exploits, Allen had a career-high 278 total yards, Phillips tied his career-high for touchdowns in a game, and Charbonnet’s 167 yards were the most he’s ever had across his time at Michigan or UCLA.
5: DTR’s performance was one of the five greatest single-game performances in UCLA football history this century. The others being Maurice Jones-Drew’s 322 rushing yard, 5 TD performance against Washington in 2004. Drew Olson’s 510-yard, 5 TD performance against Arizona State in 2005. Josh Rosen’s 491-yard 4 TD performance in the 34-point comeback against Texas A&M in 2017, and DTR’s own 507-yard 7 total touchdown performance in the 32-point comeback against Washington State in 2019.
Avoiding The Bear Trap
As much as the Bruins accomplished last week, there’s still one more game to play against big brother Cal. Furthermore, for all UCLA’s achievement in beating their nemesis by 29-points in their building, Cal one-upped the Bruins on Saturday: they beat their nemesis, Stanford, by 30-points at The Farm. Cal recovered from having more than two dozen players on the COVID-19 list in a humiliating loss to Arizona three weeks ago. The Golden Bears physically ran the ball downhill against The Cardinal for 352 yards led by running backs Christopher Brooks and Marcel Darcy, accompanied by rock-solid QB play from Chase Garbers. Cal comes in as a desperate team with a lot to play for: beat the Bruins and Trojans in subsequent weeks and achieve bowl eligibility.
UCLA has a historical tendency to take the foot off the gas after a big USC win. The program hasn’t consistently had the culture or motivation to have bigger aspirations for success in a football season beyond the simple metric of beating the Trojans. The Bruins are now 6-17 against USC since 1998. The 2018 victory was UCLA’s season finale, but in the four other instances that the Bruins won the Victory Bell and had a game the week after, they’ve only gone 1-3. UCLA needs to fight complacency, praise, and a hungry opponent to end the 2021 season on the appropriate note. Win, and they get only Kelly’s second 3-game winning streak in Westwood, an upper-tier PAC-12 bowl against a possible Power 5 ranked opponent, and a national stage to solidify themselves as conference contenders in 2022.
As great as it is to have bragging rights for the next 362 days, there’s more to a season than just the Victory Bell.