USC coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with defensive end Korey Foreman after USC defeated UCLA 48-45 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, November 19, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
USC’s Latrell McCutchin recovers a Dorian Thompson-Robinson fumble in the second half of a NCAA Football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, November 19, 2022. USC Trojans won 48-45. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson #1 of the UCLA Bruins fumbles after being tackled by defensive lineman Tyrone Taleni #31 of the USC Trojans in the second half of a NCAA Football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, November 19, 2022. USC Trojans won 48-45. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson fumbles after being tackled by USC’s Tyrone Taleni in the second half at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, November 19, 2022. USC won 48-45. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
USC defensive lineman Stanley Ta’ufo’ou tackles UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet for a loss of yards in the second half of at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, November 19, 2022. USC won 48-45. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
PASADENA — What if someone told you on Friday that, in USC’s biggest game of the season, it would be the Trojan defense that came through to seal USC’s fate? What if they said that, in a game in which USC gave up six touchdowns, it was the defense that made the plays that flipped the course of the rivalry game with UCLA?
Whether you would have believed it then or not, it was in fact the defense that walked away heroes in the Rose Bowl as No. 7 USC beat No. 16 UCLA 48-45, earning the Trojans a spot in the Pac-12 championship game in Year 1 under head coach Lincoln Riley.
“We talk about it all the time. We can’t just have a first-row seat to Caleb Wiliams and Lincoln Riley’s offense,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “Our expectations are higher than what we’ve done. … I’m just really proud of the fight. It’s fun to be on the sideline with them. They fight, they scratch, they claw.”
The defense was understandably under a microscope entering this game. UCLA was the best offense USC had faced all season and the possibility of the Bruins running roughshod seemed high.
And the Bruins did do that, to an extent. UCLA gained 513 yards, 204 on the ground, converted seven of 13 third-down attempts and their only fourth-down attempt.
But the story for the USC defense when it has been clicking this season has been turnovers, and that again was the case in this game.
For the first time since Week 4, USC took the ball away four times. The first one, a Mekhi Blackmon interception, was squandered by a missed field goal.
But USC made the rest count.
When linebacker Shane Lee reached up to intercept UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, snatching the ball out of midair on the very next drive, it led to a 49-yard Denis Lynch field goal with 14 seconds left in the first half. After being down 14-0 to start the game, USC had dragged itself back to make it a one-point game.
After UCLA moved the ball down into the red zone to open the third quarter, USC limited the damage to a field goal. It allowed quarterback Caleb Williams to find Jordan Addison for a 35-yard touchdown to give USC its first lead of the game.
The next drive, defensive tackle Tyrone Taleni strip-sacked Thompson-Robinson and defensive back Latrell McCutchin recovered the ball at the UCLA 9. The Trojans needed two plays before Austin Jones powered into the end zone and made it a 10-point game.
“We knew we needed to make a big play,” Taleni said.
The Trojans and Bruins traded blows, each scoring touchdowns on three straight drives. UCLA finally broke the streak by forcing USC into a punt with 2:27 to play. The Bruins had the chance to tie the game with a field goal.
But that’s when rush edge Korey Foreman — the former No. 1 overall recruit — dropped back into coverage and jumped a route for the game-winning interception.
During the week in practice, Foreman made an identical play. Safety Bryson Shaw came up to him and asked Foreman to make the same play in the game, and Foreman promised he would.
After the game, Shaw relayed, Foreman came up to the safety and said, “I told you.”
When the game was over, Riley came over and embraced Foreman, while teammates made sure the sophomore got his chance to ring the Victory Bell, which will soon have a new, cardinal coat of paint.
“Really cool for him. Just never know when it’s going to be your moment,” Riley said. “He’s worked hard behind the scenes.”
The Trojan defense has taken its lumps this season after numerous performances that, as Grinch has been eager to admit, have not matched expectations.
But Grinch and leaders like Lee always preached consistency and putting their heads down and getting to work. And USC got its chance to prove the work would pay off.
“It means everything, kinda thinking back to when we all got here, the thing we wanted to do was have an unbreakable brotherhood,” Lee said. “The energy and passion that we have, to play for each other, you have to be a part of it to feel.”