Commentary

USC, UCLA had defining games

Trojans rediscovered their identity while Bruins still struggled to find theirs

Updated: November 27, 2011, 3:32 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Two teams played a football game Saturday night at the Coliseum. Only one of them looked familiar.

The team in cardinal and gold. The one dancing on its field for half an hour after the game and singing its fight song so loudly in its locker room it carried through the walls into the press room and gave quarterback Matt Barkley a final round of chills.

Matt Barkley
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireMatt Barkley led the band after USC's 50-0 victory against UCLA on Saturday.

That team looked a whole lot like those teams. Yeah, Pete's teams, circa 2004-2008. The ones that crushed their opponents when beating them soundly would've sufficed. The ones that laughed at how much more fun they were having than anyone else, and shook hands after the game only because they had to.

It has been a little while since a USC Trojans team with that identity stepped onto the Coliseum field. Saturday night, the Trojans were the spitting image.

"To win is one thing," USC coach Lane Kiffin said, while somehow suppressing the urge to smirk. "To win like that is something different altogether."

If USC turned the corner last week in Oregon, it arrived someplace special Saturday night.

The team in white is an entirely different story. The UCLA Bruins weren't just bad Saturday night, they were unrecognizable.

Even during the leanest years when USC won seven of eight games during the 1970s, or in Carroll's meanest victories, this still felt like a rivalry. The Bruins might have been underdogs, but they never dogged it. They were gutty and little. The Trojans were bigger and badder. But both teams had swagger, or at the very least, an identity.

This year, UCLA didn't even look like UCLA. In an effort to be hip (I guess?), the Bruins decided to abandon the tradition of each team wearing its home uniforms for this cross-town rivalry game in order to debut new all-white uniforms by adidas. Several more will be used next season.

This is one of the new things to do in college football. You know, because Oregon does it. What's sad is that it was really the only memorable thing UCLA did all night.

The rest of the time the Bruins looked like a confused, overmatched high school team. Coach Rick Neuheisel was asked afterward at what point he realized he was going to have a problem hanging with USC.

"Their first drive," he said. "They went right down the field and scored. I thought we were going to answer. … We couldn't stop them and we were too inconsistent on offense to be in a scoring fest and it just got out of hand."

In time the details of Saturday night's game will fade. It'll be remembered as either Matt Barkley's final game at USC, one of Neuheisel's final games at UCLA, or both. It'll go down as the third most lopsided win in the history of the series.

What's important, as both programs look to the future, is who they became in this game. Or rather, who they revealed themselves to be.

USC rediscovered its identity. UCLA has never seemed further from itself.

USC must build off it, UCLA must rebuild.

USC must somehow find a way to keep this up; UCLA must start over.

"We feel like Trojan football is back," USC sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods said. "I feel like we're unbeatable right now. Of course we've lost two games we'd like to make up for, but right now we're on a roll. We can take on anybody."

So much of that, of course, depends on what Barkley chooses to do next season. He should turn professional. Save the emotional arguments and chants. Any time a player has a chance to be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft, he should take it. Even Kiffin is realistic about it.

"I know I probably shouldn't say this, but unless he just wants to do it to be a special Trojan, he ain't coming back," Kiffin said. "Unless he decides to do something that's just a special Trojan because of who he is and doesn't care about the money, this is not gonna be a deal where he's gonna go late in the first or something like that. He's every bit ready to go to the NFL."

That's the pitch, of course, an appeal to Barkley's heart, not his head. It's probably the only thing that might work on him, too. Great players are motivated by the chance to carve their place in history.

If it works on Barkley and his fellow juniors Matt Kalil, Nick Perry and T.J. McDonald, the path forward for USC is clear. Pick up where this year ended, restore Troy to glory, win a Heisman or national championship along the way.

If it doesn't, the future is far less certain. Woods and fellow 1,000-yard receiver Marqise Lee will return, as will most of the Trojans' key players. But next year is also when the heavy scholarship reductions from USC's NCAA sanctions kick in. Instead of 25 scholarships, they'll have only 15. And not just next year, but for the next three years.

Kiffin vowed it wouldn't be a problem. And shoot, after the way the man has brought USC back this year -- without the opportunity to play for a bowl game -- it's hard to doubt him.

Still, it won't be as easy as he suggests.

"We've been through this before," Kiffin said. "I thought Coach Carroll was the best in the world at this. When those things happen, so what? It's just like a guy getting injured, except now you have a whole offseason to know who is going to be there. This program has had those things happen before, great players leaving early, and it's come back from that. …

"This is the best program in America, it's not about one person."

The key is to maintain the swagger USC found in the second half of the season. To build on the bold, blustering identity it rediscovered on the Coliseum field Saturday night.

USC found itself because its players united in a common cause: to prove the sanctions would make them stronger, not weaker.

"I think it was kind of an us-against-the-world thing," Kalil said. "Playing for each other, that's really what it came down to.

"That's the only thing we can do is win the games that are given to us. If the NCAA wants to take those other games away, that's what they've got to do."

It's why they all wore defiant T-shirts proclaiming themselves the Pac-12 South Division champions of 2011 after the game. Why Barkley proudly chuckled when a reporter asked McDonald how important it was to maintain the 50-0 shutout against the Bruins.

A team came together in a magical way in 2011. Now it must stay together.

"We're excited. We're coming out of the dark," Kiffin said. "We sat on couches the last two years with people reading our sanctions and saying you're not going to bowl games, you've got nothing to play for if you go there and these Marqise Lees and Robert, all these kids kept coming.

"Now we get to go sit on the couch without all those negatives surrounding us. We're excited, we're hitting the road tomorrow."

For UCLA, the story might sound entirely different, but the path forward is actually similar.

Neuheisel's time is just about over. After this drubbing by USC, the only way it seems he can keep his job is by pulling off an upset of Oregon at Autzen Stadium on Friday in the Pacific 12 Conference title game -- an event even UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said would "shock the world."

You have assume that UCLA has at least thought about potential candidates to fill the job. While it's debatable how large a part of the problem Neuheisel was these past four years, it must be abundantly clear now to all of UCLA's decision-makers that he is not the solution. UCLA needs to move on quickly from this era. The walls must be scrubbed, spackled and freshly painted.

The coaching search must focus on finding one thing: a coach who will give the Bruins an identity. Sunny optimism didn't work. Relentless positivity became relentlessly boring.

UCLA needs an edge again, an attitude.

Or at least something more memorable than white uniforms.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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