When USC lost to Stanford in October, their chances of a national championship were dead. When they lost to Oregon that same month, their chances for the Pac-10 title were alleged to be dead.
But after beating rival UCLA 24-7 to exact revenge for last year’s loss, the Trojans (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-10) are co-champions of the Pac-10 and heading back to the Rose Bowl for the fourth time in five seasons.
It was a scenario no one could have predicted after that 24-17 loss to the Ducks. Few outside the Trojan circle expected them to be in this position but the team never lost of their goal to be conference champions once again.
“We all knew that if we buckled down and played Trojan ball, everything would work out,” said tailback Stafon Johnson, “It feels very good to prove everyone wrong who counted us out.”
As head coach Pete Carroll ran into the locker room with the joy of a student, UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell was emotionless as he stared straight ahead during what would be his final post game press conference.
Twice, he was asked questions regarding this being possibly his last game as head coach and both times, he passed on the answer with the calm poise that has been his trademark.
“My thoughts are on this game and what happened in this game,” Dorrell said, “I have no comment on that.”
Despite a 35-27 record and ending each season in a bowl game, Dorrell was fired on Monday, ending his five-year tenure as head coach that was marked by constant dissatisfaction from Bruins fans.
In their final game under Dorrell, the Bruins (6-6, 5-4) were undone by their own mistakes. They had 10 penalties and four turnovers, including three fumbles caused by the swarming Trojan defense.
“When you create a lot of turnovers, it’s easy to win that way,” said Trojans cornerback Terrell Thomas, who forced a fumble and caught an interception in the third quarter.
The tone of the day was set when UCLA fumbled on their first punt return of the game, which the Trojans recovered. On their first drive of the game, Chris Markey fumbled the ball and two plays later, McKnight scored on a five yard run to give USC a 7-0 lead.
The Bruins did score on the final drive of the first half, a spectacular one-handed grab by Dominique Johnson, but that was the only sign of life from the offense as they were held to a season-low 168 total yards.
The Trojans, on the other hand, played with efficiency as the Bruins had no answer for the three-headed running attack of Joe McKnight (89 yards), Stafon Johnson (73 yards) and Chauncey Washington (66 yards). Both McKnight and Washington scored touchdowns as the team finished with 231 rushing yards (437 total).
“We just wanted to come out, give it to them and let them know we were here to play ball,” McKnight said, adding that now he looked forward to his first-ever trip to Rose Bowl.
In that game, the team will face No. 13 Illinois (9-3). The schools have not faced each other since 1996, which the Trojans won 55-3 on the road.
For the seniors, the final moments in the locker room allowed them to reflect on ending their careers with five consecutive Pac-10 titles and three consecutive Rose Bowls, the first class to do the latter since the 1991-1993 Washington Huskies.
“It’s special,” defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. “Nobody can take that away from us.”
Meanwhile UCLA’s season ends with a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl against Brigham Young on Dec. 22. The two teams faced each other earlier this year at the Rose Bowl, with the Bruins winning 27-17.
The team valiantly battled through injuries during the year but their effort was not enough to save their coach’s job.
And as the Bruins’ last hopes for a proud season blew away in the wind, the Trojans’ resurgent year took flight to once again land in Pasadena.