Karl Dorrell, the stoic coach of the UCLA football team, was seen Saturday as he’s seldom been seen before.
He leaped into the air and pumped his fist following Eric McNeal’s game-clinching interception in the final minutes. He said he’s never coached a win over USC before and will celebrate this one for a long time.
What transpired on the Rose Bowl field on the second day of December was truly inspirational to anyone connected to UCLA.
UCLA defeated USC, 13-9 and knocked the Trojans out of appearing in their third consecutive national championship game. It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of the series.
The Bruins have had to live in the same city as the Trojans through all of USC’s football success since Pete Carroll arrived in 2001 – the Trojan national championships, the Heisman Trophy winners, the remarkable recruiting. It didn’t seem to matter who graduated or who was injured, Carroll would just reach out and put another former high school All-American in the game.
Meanwhile, Dorrell absorbed five consecutive losses to USC – the 2005 game by a 66-19 score.
But the cliché of “that’s why they have to play the games” applies. In sports, you’re never sure what’s going to happen.
Instantly, there were numerous theories on how UCLA did it. Perhaps USC was flat after coming through in must-win games against Oregon, California and Notre Dame. All those teams were nationally ranked and perhaps USC took UCLA lightly.
Perhaps the arrival of DeWayne Walker as UCLA’s defensive coordinator this season made the difference. The Bruins were vastly improved on defense, all right. Or perhaps Dorrell deserves credit for a game plan that featured the running of quarterback Patrick Cowan, who found holes in the USC defense.
Don’t minimize the importance of emotion in a football game. Here was UCLA’s chance to get on the same field with the more highly publicized USC players. Here was their chance to erase a lot of mistakes, including the effects of a four-game losing streak this season.
And they didn’t have to do it in November, a month in which Carroll hasn’t lost a game since he came to USC. This annual game has almost always been played in November, but was moved to accommodate national television.
USC shouldn’t have been so quick to agree because playing another game the week after playing Notre Dame made them vulnerable to an upset.
But give Dorrell credit for rallying his players to wins in their last three games. UCLA had to beat Oregon State and Arizona State to become bowl eligible and did.
USC gets the consolation prize of representing the Pac-10 Conference in the Rose Bowl on January 1. UCLA will play Florida State in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco December 27.
The USC-UCLA game next season is scheduled for November 24 in the Coliseum. But look out for 2008, when it’s scheduled for December 6 in the Rose Bowl.
And watch UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero heave a sigh of relief. Guerrero is the man who extended Dorrell’s contract at a time when alumni and fans were clamoring for the coach’s dismissal.
It remains to be seen if this victory translates to success in recruiting for UCLA. The Bruins aren’t likely to cut into the Trojans’ big advantage nationally. But perhaps some local players will be impressed and give UCLA a longer look instead of going to the Washington and Oregon schools, something that’s been happening in recent years.