As their seasons slipped away and their tenures grew tenuous, each of the last three UCLA football coaches marched into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at a crossroads … never to make the 11-mile trip back across town.
A narrow loss at USC in 2017 served as the final dagger in the Jim Mora era. For Rick Neuheisel, a 50-0 embarrassment in 2011 at the hands of the Bruins’ bitter rival brought about a swift end to a four-year run that had yielded just one winning season. Before that, Karl Dorrell left the crosstown rivalry with his walking papers in 2007, a day after being trampled by the Trojans for the fourth time in five seasons.
But each of those three brought better records into the rivalry defeats than the Bruins’ current coach will Saturday. Chip Kelly is a meager 16-25 since arriving at UCLA, with only two victories against teams that finished with winning records. Two more games remain for Kelly to save his job, but as another unsatisfying season under the Bruins coach comes to a close, the precedent set by his predecessors begs a big question:
Could a loss to an unraveling rival be his last straw at UCLA?
For USC, there are no such questions. Its own embattled coach, Clay Helton, was cut loose so long ago he’s already found another landing spot. USC has been spiraling since September, losing three of its last four. Any chance of preserving bowl eligibility and salvaging what’s left of its season hangs on the hopes that the slumping Trojans suddenly find a spark.
Those hopes likely face their last stand this week against UCLA. But players and coaches have insisted all week that the rivalry has provided the jolt they needed to defibrillate a lifeless season.
“It’s a perfect position,” USC cornerback Chris Steele said. “We win these next three games, we’re 7-5, and we’re bowl eligible. Obviously it’s a really big game. Not really having to emphasize the fact that it is definitely helps the team.”
UCLA secured bowl eligibility last week for the first time under Kelly. But the prospect of slamming the door on its rival got one Bruin leader chirping this week about the “little boys across the street.”
“They’re up and down through this season,” said linebacker Bo Calvert. “We’re looking to put the final dagger in them this week.”
There were no such shots fired from USC, where trash talk had clearly been discouraged this week. There was barely any discussion of bragging rights, which USC has in spades recently despite its down season.
The Trojans interim coach wouldn’t even disclose what he’d done to “get the juices flowing” for rivalry week.
“Let them talk,” said linebacker Drake Jackson. “We’ll see them when we see them.”
UCLA won’t have to worry about seeing quarterback Kedon Slovis, who torched the Bruins for nine touchdowns and nearly 900 passing yards during USC’s previous two wins in the rivalry. With Slovis sidelined by a lower leg injury, it’ll be freshman Jaxson Dart who takes the reins of USC’s offense in his first start.
“I wouldn’t really expect my first start to be in a rivalry game like this with all the emotions and just the history of it all,” Dart said. “So I’m just super excited for the opportunity and I’m ready to go attack it.”
For Dorian Thompson-Robinson, those chances are running out. The Bruins’ dual-threat quarterback posted two of the best performances of his career in the last two iterations of the rivalry, yet he’s never been able to beat USC as a starter.
His urgency to beat the Trojans before he left was made clear in a video Thompson-Robinson posted last December, in which he talked about wanting to “beat the everliving s—” out of USC.
“I haven’t had too much success in terms of winning the past three years that I’ve been here,” he said this week, “so I definitely want to take this last one home, and we already got the bowl in, so we definitely want to beat the rival and keep this thing rolling.”
Neither team is playing for much on paper. A conference title is out of reach. And while Kelly is presumably coaching for his job at UCLA, USC is aiming simply to keep its season from becoming one of the worst in school history. Not since 1991 have the Trojans failed to win more than four games in a season.
But amid a disappointing season, maybe there’s still some solace to be had for either in beating a bitter rival.
“The rest of this season aside, you win this game, it’s a successful year,” senior USC defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “These rivalry games mean a lot to us.”