In so many ways, the Trojans' performance in this critical crosstown matchup, one that determined the Pac-12 South representative in the conference championship game, was symbolic of the entire USC season.
The Trojans fell behind early 24-0. They committed three turnovers, exhibited shaky special-teams play and had too many missed opportunities on defense. It was a familiar pattern for USC fans, who had seen similar play in the three previous losses this season. There was hope that things would change for this rivalry game with the possibility of a Rose Bowl appearance still at stake, but it wasn't meant to be.
The turnover issue wasted no time in making an appearance Saturday, as USC quarterback Matt Barkley threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage. There was also a fumble by Marqise Lee that led to more early UCLA points. Barkley later added a second interception, which followed another pattern of the quarterback throwing two interceptions in each of USC's losses this season.
"We screwed a lot of things up early," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We never imagined being down 24-0 like that. It's a tough loss for this locker room and our fans; we understand that."
This game was perhaps the biggest in Barkley's career -- a chance to continue marching for a conference title and the fitting bowl ending that so many wanted to see for him. His numbers weren't bad, as he completed 20 of 38 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns, but the interceptions hurt and he had several off-target throws. It was what we had come to expect from Barkley. Rather than a Heisman-level performance week-in and week-out, there were times of great success and times of struggle. When he left the game late with an injury after taking a hard hit, his departure was a final sign that a season of unfinished business was not going to turn out as planned.
Some credit needs to be given to the Bruins. Last season, they were on the losing end of a 50-0 score that resulted in the firing of their coach, but a new regime has come in and came after the Trojans on Saturday.
UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin was as good as advertised as he ran through the USC defense for 171 yards on 29 carries with a pair of scores. As has been the case with other spread offenses, the Trojans' defense had trouble containing key third- and fourth-down conversion attempts by the quarterback, this time redshirt freshman Brett Hundley, who hit on 22 of 30 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown. More than the actual numbers was the timing of so many of his completions to Joseph Fauria and Shaquelle Evans.
Then there was the special teams. So long a strength under John Baxter, the group has been inconsistent at times this season. In this game, there was a missed field goal, a missed extra point, a blocked field goal and a blocked punt.
Even with all that, the Trojans still mounted a comeback attempt -- something they did in the previous losses as well -- but they were never able to get over the hump. Curtis McNeal posted a valiant effort on offense with 161 yards on 21 carries, while true freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams had 10 tackles.
It wasn't enough, though. The Bruins were able to make the plays in the fourth quarter to hold the lead and claim the all-important Battle of Los Angeles. The Trojans must regroup quickly, because the No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish are coming to the town next weekend looking to put the finishing touches on an undefeated season.
"It's not a good feeling right now," McNeal said. "We didn't match the energy of UCLA at the start. We kept fighting, and that's all we can do. Now we need to work hard and get ready for the next game."
With each loss, the criticism increased for Kiffin and his father, Monte, who runs the Trojans' defense. But after the UCLA game, USC athletic director Pat Haden said Lane Kiffin would "absolutely" return next season.
When you have four losses in a season, it's pretty fair to say that there are some issues. Many USC fans went through the season hoping the problems that popped up would eventually be addressed and that the team would round into form and meet the expectations that so many placed on them in the preseason. The current state of the team -- and the performance it showed Saturday against UCLA -- is not a commentary on those expectations; it's just a clearer picture in looking back rather than trying to speculate on what lies ahead.
The Trojans have yet to put together a complete game this season. They are too inconsistent on offense and have yet to find an answer on defense to the spread offense. There have been opportunities in each loss to make plays that could have turned the game, but it didn't happen. USC radio analyst Paul McDonald -- who led the Trojans to a national title in 1978 -- made the comment that "the chemistry which makes championship teams is missing from this team."