LOS ANGELES (AP) - Chip Kelly tracked down USC's Caleb Williams after the game and gave a warm hug to the quarterback who stands side-by-side with Andrew Luck in the UCLA coach’s personal rankings of the best college players he has ever faced.
Both men realized Williams might have just played his final snaps of college football in a blowout loss that increased the chances of Kelly coaching more games for the Bruins in the future.
T.J. Harden rushed for a career-high 142 yards and scored two touchdowns, Ethan Garbers threw three TD passes and UCLA trounced spiraling USC 38-20 on Saturday in the 93rd edition of their crosstown showdown.
Alex Johnson returned a fumble 11 yards for a key second-half touchdown for the Bruins (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12), who likely improved Kelly’s questionable job security by reclaiming the Victory Bell in impressive fashion.
"I think anybody that’s been in this game (knows it’s) unique," Kelly said. "I’ve been at other schools in other (rivalry) games, and it’s not like this. I think the proximity of the schools, playing for the Bell, there’s so much that goes into it. It’s cool to see the smiles on our kids’ faces when we get to bring the Bell back to our school."
Hudson Habermehl caught two of the three TD passes by Garbers, while UCLA’s defense forced three turnovers and drastically limited Williams’ playmaking chances, leading to a celebratory afternoon.
"Today was probably one of the better days of my life, for sure," said Garbers, an Orange County native. "I’ve had some dreams about this as a little kid. Great to get the W and go home."
Williams passed for 384 yards with a touchdown and an interception on his 22nd birthday in the final game of a calamitous regular season for the Trojans (7-5, 5-4), who lost five of six after being ranked No. 5 entering the year and starting out 6-0.
"Very, very disappointing," Lincoln Riley said. "I mean, there’s no other way to put it. I told the guys in the locker room I’ve clearly not done a good enough job in the second half of the season getting this team ready to go. ... We just didn’t play good enough in any way."
Riley has lost three straight games for the first time in his seven years as a head coach at Oklahoma and USC. Williams and Riley won their first 11 games together at the Coliseum before losing the last three.
The Trojans’ Heisman Trophy winner hasn’t announced his plans for next year or the upcoming bowl game. He refused to speak to the media afterward.
"He came here and took a chance on this place, and took a chance on being a part of restarting this program and getting it going," Riley said of Williams. "He’s been a good player for us, a really good leader for us. He’s a special player, special competitor, and obviously we’ll see where it goes from here."
Not even a lively home crowd that included pop star and USC student Olivia Rodrigo could spark the Trojans to a competitive performance. Among the lowlights were 3 yards rushing.
"We didn’t finish well, there’s no other way to put it," pass rusher Jamil Muhammad said of USC’s second-half swoon. "We didn’t do enough things well to win. We’ll come back better, starting in the bowl game, and then next season it’ll be a nice turnaround for us."
After scoring just 45 points in their previous three games combined, the Bruins lit up the scoreboard against USC’s dismal defense. UCLA hadn’t won back-to-back games at USC’s 101-year-old stadium since 1997, but the Bruins never trailed in this matchup after blowing out the Trojans 62-33 two years ago.
UCLA’s offense managed just seven points last week in an embarrassing loss to Arizona State, but the Bruins drove 48 yards for Harden’s TD run on their opening drive.
"This entire performance was for (Kelly)," Garbers said. "It shows a lot about our team and this culture that we can come from last week to this week and do this."
USC had its best offensive moment in the second quarter when Williams capped a 99-yard drive with a beautiful throw to Brenden Rice, who went 74 yards for a score.
UCLA: Kelly is facing calls for his firing after a six-season tenure that hasn’t produced anything near the high-level success expected, but he’s not done yet. His Bruins rebounded from back-to-back losses with his third victory over USC — the first over a Trojans team with a winning record. Kelly improved his record to 34-33.
"Not an issue for me," Kelly said of the speculation. "I’ve never been governed by the fear of what other people say."
USC: Riley’s team hasn’t exactly quit on him, but it looked considerably less passionate than the Bruins. Some serious work will be needed with this roster beyond a complete teardown of the defense. Riley said that process will start in practice for the Trojans’ bowl game before they head to the Big Ten in 2024.
- UCLA: Host California on Nov. 25.
- USC: A mid-tier bowl game and a search for a new defensive coordinator.