Power shift in LA?
Players from both UCLA and USC remember last season's game with different perspectives.
© Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PRESSWIRE
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- When USC's Robert Woods and Dion Bailey were youngsters in Carson, Calif., their Pop Warner team was among the best in the state.
Then, one Saturday morning, they suffered a crushing loss to a team from Carlsbad, quarterbacked by an older prodigy named Tate Forcier. Bailey, now a sophomore linebacker for the Trojans, says he still remembers everything about it vividly today: the first touchdown they allowed, when he knew it was over, when he knew how badly he wanted to forget it and how hard he found he would work to do so.
"That," he says now, pausing for effect, "is the worst I've ever lost."
Bailey and Woods lost 28-6 to a team they never saw again. Take the margin of that loss and more than double it against your biggest rival, and that's about how badly UCLA lost to USC last Thanksgiving weekend: 50-0.
Bailey said he couldn't imagine facing his classmates after a loss of that magnitude.
"Here, at this school, with our tradition, if we lost 50-0, I probably wouldn't show up to school," Bailey said this week. "We didn't have any games after, we weren't bowl-eligible. That was our last game.
"I'd probably just show up for finals, keep my head down and avoid eye contact with everybody."
Of course, UCLA's players had to go to school the week after their devastating loss to USC last season. And they had to play in the conference championship game six days later, too -- against Oregon, the fifth-ranked team in the country.
Given all that, USC receiver Marqise Lee understands what has happened to the UCLA football team since that fateful night at the Coliseum.
"I'd change my mindset, too," Lee said. "Play harder. Play better. That's what they're doing."
UCLA safety Andrew Abbott, a Bruins captain and a former receiver of Matt Barkley's in high school at Mater Dei, said this week that the game was partially responsible for the drastic change he and his teammates made sometime in between December and September.
"It's something that kind of drove players individually," Abbott said. "The team remembers it, and we thought about it and it helped us in the offseason. But it wasn't something like we were like, 'We lost 50-0, let's go get extra work in.' We didn't do that."
Similarly, most USC players this week shied away from saying the Bruins are who they are today specifically because of how they were beaten last season, choosing instead to channel their coach and emphasize Jim Mora's hire as the most important part.
But a number of Trojans indicated they thought last year's loss was also part of it. And, maybe, part of why the Trojans are where they are, too.
"If that's the way UCLA wants to put it, that's the way I'll put it," USC cornerback Nickell Robey said. "I know as far as us, we came in feeling like the No. 1 team in the nation. That's the way things were. Last year, we were in full tilt. They caught us at the wrong time. The timing was great, for us.
"We created a perfect storm and they ran right into it."
Is it possible the Trojans were caught in the storm, too?
Consider this: If USC had won last year's rivalry matchup by a score of, say, 28-14, would the Trojans have opened up this season as the AP preseason No. 1?
It's uncertain. The UCLA rout was the final game USC played in 2011 and it led to a situation in which the Trojans kept improving in the public eye even while off the field over the next month. Then, when Matt Barkley and T.J. McDonald announced they were staying for their senior seasons, the Trojans' preseason fate was just about sealed.
When LSU's Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the Tigers' program in early August, it then vaulted USC to the preseason No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll.
With players admitting at various points this year that the corresponding hype proved difficult to live up to -- no matter how many times they ran by "prep not hype" painted on the practice field -- it's hard to not directly connect that with the unequivocal disappointment this season has been.
That doesn't mean USC simply wants to forget that the 50-0 victory ever happened. The nature of the win will stick with Trojans -- and Bruins -- fans for decades. But, in retrospect, it has proven to not be quite the harbinger for success most expected.
USC coach Lane Kiffin was noncommittal this week when asked if expectations were a little too high for his team this season based on how it finished the past one.
"Obviously, with the way we ended last season, with the Oregon win last year and the 50-0 and Matt and T.J. coming back, that created a lot of expectations," he said. "But that's gonna happen here. That's part of being here, we understand that.
"It's part of SC, it's part of L.A. And you just gotta deal with it."
But, one day earlier, Kiffin said everything that happened last season is "totally irrelevant" to this season, at least as far as USC-UCLA goes.
"You could have won a game 50-0 and played that same team the next Saturday and the score's not gonna be the same," Kiffin said. "I don't think [the score] has anything to do with where they're at now.
"I think that has to do with how Jim's come in there and done a great job, came in with a lot of discipline, and they're coached really well."
Woods and Bailey's team never won the Pop Warner Super Bowl. Forcier's did.
But the two Trojans ended up all right. The loss stuck with them and motivated them over the next decade.
It seems as if the same can be said for UCLA, too. Will it continue?