LOS ANGELES — After Sam Darnold met up with Josh Rosen at midfield, the Southern California quarterback climbed the stepladder for possibly the final time, holding the sword aloft and leading the Trojans’ band while the student section chanted: “One more year!”
If Darnold had just played his last collegiate game at the Coliseum, he went out with a particularly sweet victory — even though he wasn’t the biggest star of a workmanlike win over UCLA.
Darnold passed for 264 yards and ran for a touchdown, and No. 12 USC persevered for its third consecutive victory over its crosstown rivals, 28-23 on Saturday night.
Although he threw one interception and failed to get a touchdown pass for the third time this season, Darnold made enough steady plays to keep USC in front of UCLA (5-6, 3-5).
“Beating UCLA, keeping the Victory Bell here, and just staying undefeated at home for the last two years, it’s a huge accomplishment,” Darnold said.
Ronald Jones II rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns, and Michael Pittman Jr. returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown on a spectacular trick play in the first quarter of the regular-season finale for the Pac-12 South champion Trojans (10-2, 8-1).
Rosen passed for 421 yards and hit Jordan Lasley for three touchdowns in the first — and probably only — collegiate meeting between Los Angeles’ star quarterbacks. Lasley had 10 catches for 204 yards.
Darnold and Rosen left their high schools on opposite sides of the LA area three seasons ago, but hadn’t yet played against each other due to Darnold’s redshirt year in 2015 and Rosen’s shoulder injury in 2016. With dozens of NFL scouts and executives in the Coliseum, Darnold and Rosen both looked sharp — but Darnold’s receivers and running game came up bigger while UCLA fell behind early and couldn’t catch up.
“We’re not technically battling against each other, because I’m going against their defense,” Darnold said. “But I think it’s awesome to be able to battle against a great player like Josh.”
Even after wrapping up a spot in the conference title game with a win at Colorado last week, USC finished strong in the crosstown showdown with its 16th consecutive victory at the Coliseum, including every game with Clay Helton as its head coach and Darnold as the starting quarterback.
“I thought our kids did what was needed to be done in a hard-fought ballgame,” Helton said.
USC mounted a 90-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter, with Jones’ second TD run capping it. Rosen then found Lasley for a 27-yard score with 2:43 to play, but his 2-point conversion pass was too high for Lasley.
USC recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock on the final home game for the Trojans’ seniors — and possibly for their NFL-caliber underclassmen including Darnold and Jones.
“Not great. I really thought we won this game,” Rosen said when asked how he felt about the Bruins’ play. “We executed how we want. We weren’t even making field goals. Missed a field goal, two turnovers — that’s what, nine points right there? We lost by five. Another touchdown called back for a chop (block). It’s just frustrating.”
UCLA: UCLA is unbeaten at the Rose Bowl this season, but went 0-6 on the road, even after performing fairly well against the Trojans. The season comes down to next week’s visit from California (5-6, 2-6), with the winner of the UC rivalry game gaining bowl eligibility.
USC: The Trojans showed tenacity and resilience, finishing the regular season strong instead of taking the night off. The defense will be pleased by another encouraging performance heading to the league title game against Washington State or Stanford.
Less than six minutes in, the Trojans pulled off a remarkable special-teams trick for their first touchdown. When UCLA’s Stefan Flintoft angled a long punt toward the USC sideline, the Trojans ran back toward the center of the field to block for Ajene Harris, who pretended to catch an invisible ball while Pittman scampered down the far sideline, eluded a tackle and scored.
“It went exactly how we expected,” Pittman said.
UCLA had a chance to shift momentum right after halftime with a drive deep into USC territory, but Marvell Tell III came up with an end-zone interception. Rosen was particularly frustrated with that throw. “Just stupid mistakes,” Rosen said. “I didn’t see Marvell on the field. I thought it was a touchdown when I threw it. Then I peeked a little bit and (said), ‘Man, guess I’ve got to play defense now.'”
Darnold claims he won’t decide whether to head to the NFL until after the season. USC fans still have hope he’ll return for a third season under center, as evidenced by their “One more year!” chants.
“I’m not going to say anything about that,” Darnold said with a grin.
UCLA: Host California on Friday possibly without running back Bolu Olorunfunmi, who could be out after picking up an unspecified injury against USC.
USC: After a week off, the Pac-12 championship game in Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 1.