LOS ANGELES -- Now that is the way to finish a football season.
For a USC Trojans team that began the 2011 season with so many unanswered questions, the 50-0 victory on Saturday at the Coliseum against the UCLA Bruins made an emphatic statement about where the program stands right now.
"I'm so proud of this team," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "It's one thing to win the game. It's another thing to play really, really well."
This was supposed to be a rivalry game in which both teams were playing for something. The Trojans were hoping to finish off the year in style to continue the momentum that had been built in recent weeks. The Bruins, on the other hand, were looking to prove they belonged as the team representing the Pac-12 South Division next week in the conference title game.
UCLA tried to respond by going on a 12-play drive of their own to get inside the Trojans 10-yard line. The Bruins ran four straight running plays -- including a fourth-down play from the 1 -- but the Trojans defense held, and the ball was turned over on downs. In terms of highlights for the Bruins, that was basically it for the night.
The Trojans simply took the game over from there and never let up. Barkley completed 13 straight passes at one point and ended the game having completed 35 of 42 passes for 423 yards and six touchdowns.
For a player looking to put himself in contention for the Heisman Trophy, it couldn't have been a better night for Barkley. He showed complete command of the offense and earned every bit of the praise he is sure to hear over the next two weeks before he makes the likely trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
The victory over the Bruins means a 10-win season for a program mired in sanctions and unable to take part in the conference title game or a bowl game. It means a senior class that stayed -- even when the NCAA presented them with an opportunity to transfer without penalty due to the sanctions -- will leave school with the knowledge that they never lost to their crosstown rivals.
The game was also an indication of just how powerful the Trojans have become at the tail end of the season. Barkley tied his own school record with six touchdown passes and set a school and conference mark with 39 touchdown passes on the year. USC had two receivers with more than 10 catches each in the game -- the first time that has happened at the school -- while one of those receivers (Robert Woods) set a conference record for most catches in a season (111). Curtis McNeal also broke off a 72-yard touchdown run -- the latest in a series of long runs this year from the junior tailback -- on his way to breaking the 1,000-yard mark on the season.
For the head coach, however, there was nothing more impressive about the victory than the way the Trojans finished. USC went into the halftime locker room with a 29-0 lead and the outcome of the game no longer in doubt. Many teams would have relaxed, put in the reserves and cruised to the victory. Not these Trojans. They went out and kept the pressure on until the very end to come away with the decisive win.
"The best part of the game for me was the second half," Kiffin said. "We challenged them in the locker room at halftime to finish the game off right, and I think it made a statement about who these guys are with the way they responded."
That response was no clearer than on the final UCLA drive of the game. The Bruins marched 77 yards in 12 plays late in the fourth quarter, moving the ball inside the USC 10-yard line. The Coliseum crowd was in a frenzy, sensing the opportunity to preserve a shutout, and the Trojans' defense rose to the occasion by turning the Bruins away once again.
For Barkley, that final stop provided him with an opportunity to provide his personal highlight of the night. With the game in hand and the final seconds ticking away, Kiffin called for his quarterback to throw one last pass. It might have seemed like a meaningless throw to most observers -- a short, 9-yard completion to a former walk-on -- but the receiver was Barkley's cousin, Robbie Boyer, who had never caught a pass at USC and was playing in his final game for the Trojans.
"That was the biggest play of the game for me," Barkley said.
It was a perfect ending for Barkley and the final exclamation point to a USC season that will end on a high note. As the Trojans players filed into the locker room after the game, they found one final gift waiting for them -- the USC athletic department had printed t-shirts which said "USC Trojans - Pac-12 South Division 2011 champions."
USC might not be allowed to represent the conference next week in Eugene, Ore., for the conference title game, but the Trojans certainly finished the 2011 season in style with a victory that will be remembered for years to come.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.