All Ball Sports: USC, UCLA backyard brawl    

by Paul Teetor

Saturday’s showdown between 9-1 USC, and 8-2 UCLA at the Rose Bowl has the potential to be the best football game between these two ancient blood rivals since…well, since 13-9.

Every UCLA fan on your block or your group chat will be quick to remind you that 13-9 was the score in 2006 when UCLA, with a mediocre record of 6-5, scored a monumental upset over top-ranked USC and knocked them out of the race for the national championship.

No one knew the full impact of that shocking loss back then. But along with the never-to-be-forgotten last-second loss to Texas and its star quarterback Vince “Forever” Young in the national championship game at the Coliseum just 10 months earlier, it signaled the beginning of the end of the Pete Carroll golden era of USC football.

Now, 16 years later, USC appears to be on the verge of launching another golden era under new coach Lincoln Riley. Riley, who got his baptism in must-win games while coaching Oklahoma against Texas in the Red River rivalry for five years – he won every year, for what it’s worth — is going to learn that it doesn’t matter what your record coming into the Bruins-Trojans showdown is, or even what your record is after it.

What really matters is simple: did you beat the Bruins this year?

Or not.

Last year UCLA destroyed USC 62-33 in the Coliseum, and in the process, saved Coach Chip Kelly’s job. 

Trojan Coach Clay Helton wasn’t on the sideline to absorb the humiliation. He had already been run out of town mid-season by fed up USC boosters who couldn’t stand to watch even one more game of endless penalties, brain-dead play calling and a defense that gave up before the blocking and tackling even started.

Naturally, Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson ran wild over the dispirited Trojans, at one memorable point even hurdling a potential USC tackler on his way to a touchdown.

That’s the kind of highlight play that will always make it into the end-of-season sizzle reel that big-time programs put out to help them recruit top level players.

And this year DTR – as he is known far and wide – figures to run wild once again as USC’s defense has proven to be its weak link this year despite suffering only one loss, and that by only one point. 

The big difference this year is that USC has a quarterback in Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams, only 19, who is a far more advanced player than the 23-year-old DTR, who is playing his fifth year of college football after taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility offered to anyone who played through the pandemic season of 2020.

Williams is a far more talented and creative passer than DTR, a skill-set that has made him a legit prospect for the dozens of NFL scouts who will be part of the 90,000 spectators who will fill the Rose Bowl to its full capacity.

Conversely, DTR hasn’t convinced anybody that he is NFL quarterback material, which is why he didn’t enter the draft last year. His big fear: that NFL coaches will immediately tell him to forget about playing quarterback and urge him to try out for running back, or wide receiver, or defensive back to take advantage of his elite athleticism.

There’s a long tradition of NFL coaches doing that to black quarterbacks who are super-athletic but lack the statistical credentials to merit consideration as a traditional drop-back passer, which is what you must be first and foremost to succeed in the NFL. If you’re a great runner, like Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson or DeShaun Watson, that is a bonus. 

So DTR’s fear of being sidelined as just another guy on the roster is real and legit. His mission this year was to prove that he deserved to be drafted as a QB, period.

But Saturday night he stumbled badly as UCLA lost 34-28 to 3-6 Arizona, a loss that not only knocked some of the shine off the rivalry game Saturday, but pushed UCLA down from 12th to 16th in the national polls and just reinforced the consensus opinion after five years that DTR is simply not a big-time quarterback ready to make the quantum leap to the NFL.

Exciting? Yes, for sure. 

NFL quality material? No way.

Caleb Williams, on the other hand, is often compared to NFL star Russell Wilson, who has great wheels, a rocket arm and an uncanny knack for making something out of nothing. 

But Williams is at least two inches taller than Wilson and so has the potential to be even greater than the guy who led Pete Carroll’s Seahawks team to a Super Bowl victory not so long ago and would have led them to a second if Carroll hadn’t made the worst play call in Super Bowl history when his team was on the verge of punching in the winning TD. Instead, he called for a goal line pass, Wilson was intercepted by Malcolm Butler and the Patriots went on to win yet another Super Bowl. 

Typically, DTR has the running edge on virtually every quarterback on the opposing team. He is a fearless, mercurial runner who will pull the football down if nobody’s open and set off on a wild romp that has fans on both sides hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

But that won’t be the case Saturday: Williams is every bit the wild card runner that DTR is.

One other factor that may come into play: UCLA Coach Kelly’s job may well be on the line after the stunning Saturday night loss to Arizona that ruined any chance UCLA had to be invited to the College Football Playoffs.

To that, All Ball says: Hallelujah. As we have been saying for several years now, Kelly had his great run at Oregon back in the day and he’s never going to approach that level again.

One thing for sure: with both quarterbacks operating at full capacity, the final score won’t be 13-9

Prediction: USC by 45-42.

Contact: Follow: @paulteetor. ER


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