U.S.C., Backed by Its Big Name, Makes Case for National Title Run
PASADENA, Calif. — It was Larry Smith’s parting lament, delivered as he was on his way out as the Southern California coach with a loss to Fresno State in the Freedom Bowl, which came three years after a run of three consecutive Rose Bowl trips.
“Big names and logos don’t mean anything in college football anymore,” Smith said 30 years ago, at a time when scholarship limits had begun to level the playing field in college football — and years before it was unevened again by gazillions in television revenue, the transfer portal and new endorsement opportunities for athletes.
We may be on the cusp of finding out the value of brand recognition — and a transformational quarterback — as U.S.C. careened closer to college football’s four-team playoff with a rollicking 48-45 victory over U.C.L.A. on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.
The visiting Trojans played as they have virtually all season — hauled along by the sublime talents of their quarterback, Caleb Williams, and their occasional defense whose only manner of stopping the opposition seems to be taking the ball away, which they did four times on Saturday.
The last one came when Korey Foreman, a sophomore defensive end who had to be reminded of his assignment, dropped into coverage and intercepted Dorian Thompson-Robinson at midfield with less than 90 seconds left. A first-down run by Williams and a few kneel downs later, the Trojans had one final takeaway — the victory bell that the two teams fight over, one whose cart will soon get a new paint job, going from blue to cardinal.
The bell was paraded through the south end zone, where receiver Jordan Addison, waving a replica sword from atop a ladder, conducted the U.S.C. band through its standards. Two Trojans stomped on the U.C.L.A. logo at midfield and Coach Lincoln Riley threw a bearhug around the shoulders of his sobbing left tackle Bobby Haskins, a senior transfer from Virginia, where three former teammates were killed last week.
“Is this great or what?” Mike Bohn, the U.S.C. athletic director, screamed to a reporter before popping him in the chest with his fist.
The celebration was in stark contrast to the Trojans’ mood leading up to the game. Thompson-Robinson spoke of hanging another 60 points on U.S.C. — as the Bruins did last season — and said, “Obviously, we hate those guys across town.” But the Trojans, who had so many transfers and a new coaching staff, greeted the rivalry with a shrug all week.
Consider the two players who accompanied Riley to an interview room on Saturday night — Williams, who played in the Red River Rivalry against Texas and the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State when he was with Riley last season at Oklahoma; and middle linebacker Shane Lee, who transferred from Alabama, had experienced the Iron Bowl against Auburn.
It looked early as if the Trojans were stuck in a malaise.
U.C.L.A. jumped to a 14-0 lead, and the Trojans were discombobulated. Freshman scatback Raleek Brown ran his way out of a first down, Williams threw a rare interception — his second of the season — and freshman kicker Denis Lynch missed the first of two field goals.
“You build these games up in your head, and the problem becomes when you try to decide what’s going to happen before it happens,” Riley said. “You get so excited to play, you kind of dream, ‘Oh, we’re going to play this unbelievable game.’ You never think, ‘Oh, were going to be down 14-0.’”
As so often has happened this season, Williams steadied the Trojans. He capped a methodical 10-play, 75-yard drive by scoring on a 6-yard quarterback draw. At the end of the night, he had thrown for a career-best 470 yards.
Chip Kelly, the U.C.L.A. coach, called Williams as fine a college quarterback as he’s coached against — a list that includes Heisman Trophy winners Jameis Winston, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. “That rare dual-threat guy that can beat you with his legs and his arm,” said Kelly, who lauded Williams’ accuracy, pocket presence and mobility. Williams had eight carries for 33 rushing yards.
Kelly’s own quarterback, Thompson-Robinson, played with a great deal of determination, throwing two crunching blocks, injuring his right thumb and missing one play after taking a blow to the head. (Kelly said the decision to return was up to team doctors, who did not examine Thompson-Robinson in the injury tent.)
And the Bruins rolled up 513 yards, joining California with 469 yards, Arizona with 543 yards and Utah with 562 yards as recent offenses that have feasted of late on the Trojans’ defense.
But Thompson-Robinson’s crucial mistakes — three interceptions and a lost fumble — were more than enough to spell the difference for the Bruins, whose hopes of their first Pac-12 championship since 1998 were dashed. (Cade McNown, the star quarterback on that team, cheered the Bruins on from the sideline Saturday night.)
It was that sort of Saturday in college football.
The College Football Playoff was nearly sent into chaos with No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Texas Christian needing last-second field goals to keep their unbeaten seasons intact, and No. 2 Ohio State had to fend off Maryland late in the fourth quarter.
And No. 5 Tennessee was shellacked by South Carolina.
The SEC, though, can afford a little tumult. Three different conference representatives have won the last three national titles, a level of credibility that has escaped the Pac-12, which has not participated in the playoff since 2017.
But the Trojans are the conference’s marquee brand — at least until they leave for the Big Ten in less than two years. They bumped their record to 10-1, and their ranking should climb from No. 7. They will have a chance to burnish a flimsy résumé — their win over U.C.L.A. is the Trojans’ signature victory, with their only other win over a ranked team being a squeaker at Oregon State. (They have missed Washington and Oregon on the Pac-12 schedule and narrowly lost at Utah.)
The Trojans next host No. 18 Notre Dame, which has recovered from an embarrassing start with losses to Stanford and Marshall, and then will play Utah, Washington or Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.
Consider the tests that others have ahead: Ohio State and Michigan have each other next week, Louisiana State has Georgia in two more weeks, and T.C.U. will have to manage its way past Kansas State or Texas to get through the Big 12 unscathed.
The Trojans, defenseless or not, are in position to find out just how far that logo — and a big-name quarterback — can carry them.