The second half of UCLA's game against the USC opened with a driving rain, a costly fumble, and a lead that was 20 points smaller than it used to be. The Bruins got punched in the nose, and they swung back.
Whatever else happens, you'll be hard pressed to find a Bruins fan who isn't happy with the 2012 season. UCLA beat USC. They could get beat by Stanford to close out the season, thrashed by Stanford again in the Pac-12 Championship and blown out by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl, and I would spend the offseason thinking about the look on Aaron Hester's face after he picked off Matt Barkley on the first play from scrimmage.
That's the image that's stuck with me from the game. To say Hester was fired up doesn't quite cover it. He snatched Barkley's pass out of the air, returned it 14 yards, and a few seconds later was standing on the sidelines, helmet in his hand, screaming at the crowd. The look on his face wasn't that of a man who felt outgunned, a man who was part of what nearly everyone, myself included, said would be the weak point of UCLA's defense, the look of a man who was worried. It was the look of a man who thought he was capable of something in particular, and had just begun to execute.
Between the Barkley interception and the Marqise Lee fumble, the entire first quarter belonged to UCLA. About half of the second quarter did too, and that's when USC started to wake up. Expecting the whole game to go like the first 20 minutes did was more than any Bruin player or fan had right to ask, and when USC went 75 yards on four plays for their first touchdown it had the feeling of inevitability. That the USC offense would eventually wake up wasn't the question, the question was how UCLA would respond.
That's why I talked about how important it was to think of themselves as fighters. If they had gone up 24-0 and expected to cruise to victory, there would have been a rude awakening at the start of the second quarter. That's when the USC offense woke up, put 20 unanswered points on the board, and the Bruins came very close to falling completely out of the game.
The second half opened in a pouring rain. The Bruins gifted the Trojans a touchdown on an ugly fumble. The following drive fell apart when a sack of Brett Hundley dragged the Bruins out of anything resembling field goal range. What was at one point a 24-0 lead was down to 24-20. To put it mildly, the Bruins were in a tight spot.
UCLA's secondary was the weak spot. They gave up pass interference plays when the ball was nowhere near catchable, they got burned on simple moves, they did everything that Bruins fans feared they would do. But at the beginning of the third quarter, in the driving rain and with the offense looking like they'd forgotten how to play football, the secondary did exactly what it needed to do. Barkley went to Lee, and they fought it off. He went to Lee again, and they fought it off again. Barkley went to Xavier Grimble, and Anthony Barr was right there in his face. The Trojan offense went three-and-out, and when they tried to punt it Eric Kendricks came flying off the edge and put his hand on it. The Bruin offense took over at the 33 and 48 seconds later they added their fourth touchdown of the day. The game wasn't won by forcing that three-and-out, but that's where it would have been lost.
I happened to make a survey of expert picks the morning before the game. Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, CBS Sports, the usual crew of writers and pundits. Of the eight people making picks, seven picked USC. The computer simulator picked the Trojans too. In short, there was a suspicion that UCLA's position in the rankings was a fluke. If that were the case, if the Bruins were really in over their head, if they really didn't deserve to be ahead of USC in the Pac-12 standings and the BCS rankings, if they really were the same old Bruins, that defensive series is where all the false fronts would have fallen down. But instead of USC moving down the field and taking the lead, the Bruins shut down three straight passes and blocked a punt. It's hard to be more definitive than that.
To my mind, that's what Hester was screaming about in the game's opening minutes. That the Bruins deserved to be there. That they were capable of showing up USC. That Mora really did change the culture. That USC was going down today, and Stanford after that, and anybody else the Bruins see fit to roll up on.