Commentary: For USC and UCLA football fans, misery will find easy company at Coliseum

Pasadena, CA - UCLA wide receiver Logan Loya can't hang on to a pass from quarterback Colin Schlee.
UCLA wide receiver Logan Loya can't hang on to a pass from quarterback Collin Schlee, background, as Arizona State defensive back Shamari Simmons defends on the play. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A year ago, when USC visited UCLA at the Rose Bowl, it felt like the start of something great.

The Trojans were 9-1 in coach Lincoln Riley’s first season, and quarterback Caleb Williams’ Heisman Trophy candidacy was just beginning to blossom. The Bruins were 8-2 and had proved their mettle with wins over Washington and Utah. Fox Sports’ top crew of Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt were in the house, a nod to the importance of the crosstown rivalry in the network’s Big Ten future.

Then there was the game itself — an all-time classic, a 48-45 USC win clinched by a late interception that broke your heart for the dazzling Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

But Saturday, when the Trojans and Bruins meet again at the Coliseum, the fans from both sides who dutifully attend will be more likely to commiserate about their consternation over another lost season than volley good-natured insults.

Each team has compiled four losses, dropping from the top-25 rankings weeks ago. For UCLA, floundering in the sixth year of the Chip Kelly era and coming off a humiliating loss Saturday to 3-7 Arizona State, the USC game feels more like the end of something. Or, at least, many frustrated Bruin diehards will be hoping that it is.

UCLA fans now find themselves in the unenviable position of not necessarily rooting for their school to beat its arch nemesis. If UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond is looking for any reason to keep Kelly this offseason (given that he just extended his contract last year), a win over USC could certainly suffice. Judging by the tenor of social media angst Saturday night, Jarmond’s constituents would begrudgingly trade a year of bragging rights for a fresh start with a new head coach who wants to recruit and pour his heart into the Westwood experience.

The issue for those who have passed their breaking point with Kelly is that these Trojans are genuinely capable of losing to anyone and, if they’re just clumsy enough in their regular-season finale, could provide Jarmond an easy out.

Read more: USC and UCLA will enter a weakened Big Ten in the midst of an ugly Michigan mud fight

It’s hard to fathom given Riley’s standing among USC fans just six weeks ago, but they might now be more mad about the state of affairs than UCLA backers.

USC fans have become so disillusioned so quickly that beating the Bruins, particularly struggling as they are, hardly offers Riley’s team a chance to win back any respectability or project positivity into the offseason.

The focus has shifted toward the search for the next defensive coordinator and frustration directed toward the Trojans’ 2024 recruiting class, currently ranked No. 18 nationally with just a sprinkle of Southern California talent. USC fans should enjoy what is likely to be the last game for Williams in a Trojans uniform, but they’d also be wise to be wondering who will be taking the first snap in 2024. It’s safe to say Riley will be big-game hunting for that position in the transfer portal very soon.

Riley has gone out of his way to say in recent weeks that he’s here to build the Trojans for the long haul, but we should prepare ourselves for NFL coaching speculation to kick up a month from now. Any USC fans whose gut instinct is to say, “Well, good riddance!” should try to give Riley the benefit of the doubt. While still learning, he remains one of the top young minds in the game and deserves more time to put his vision in place.

See, USC and UCLA are actually surrounded by intrigue. It’s just sad that very little of it has to do with Saturday’s game.

A note on two-point conversions

My Saturday was bookended by witnessing the same late-game decision in the Michigan-Penn State game and the USC-Oregon game.

Penn State scored a touchdown to pull to within 24-15. I assumed based on a lifetime of watching football that coach James Franklin would send on the kicker to make it a one-score game and preserve hope for his team and the 100,000-plus fans in Happy Valley, but instead he kept the offense on the field to go for two.

I know analytics have taken over the game, and they say the right thing to do is go for two so that you know what it will take to win the game earlier and can adjust your plan accordingly. Since there were only a few minutes left, Penn State was extremely likely to get the ball back only one time. So why not guarantee that if that happens your team needs only a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie?

Michigan stopped Penn State, effectively ending the game. The Wolverines had minimal pressure to pick up a first down leading by nine points.

Later, Riley made the same call down 36-27. Once again, after watching your team fight to stay in the game all night, wouldn’t you want to stretch out the hope for a miracle on another set of downs? USC did not convert either, and the game was over earlier than it had to be.

USC coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams confer on the sideline.
USC coach Lincoln Riley, conferring with quarterback Caleb Williams during the loss to Oregon, forced the issue Saturday by going for a two-point conversion when a extra-point try would have made it a one-possession game. (Andy Nelson / Associated Press)

I would understand going for the conversion if there were four to five minutes left, and you could conjure a scenario to get two more offensive possessions down by nine.

I would understand it much more if the team was down by eight and had the opportunity to get the margin to six. In that case, if you don’t convert, you’re still one score away.

Next time, Riley should ignore the analytics on this one. Plus, you never want to be associated with Franklin’s in-game decisions as a general rule.

Playoff setup

The College Football Playoff field is beginning to take shape.

The Georgia-Alabama winner is in. The Michigan-Ohio State winner is in. Florida State is in if it wins out, which is likely. Washington is in if it wins out — although that’s a pretty giant if with a road game at Oregon State and a rematch with surging Oregon ahead.

Things will get interesting if the Huskies or Seminoles lose and Alabama beats Georgia. The debate would then center on the two-time defending champs, sitting at 12-1, and potentially a 12-1 Oregon or 12-1 Texas (either of which would be a conference champion).

Has Georgia done enough? The Bulldogs are surely one of the top four teams, but their resume would not feature a marquee win to match Texas’ win at Alabama or an Oregon win against Washington.

I think the Longhorns’ win in Tuscaloosa would be the trump card.

Oregon, then, is probably going to need some help down the stretch, particularly in the form of another Texas defeat.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.