PASADENA, Calif. – Pete Carroll lowered himself onto a wooden bench in the coaches' locker room Saturday, hunched over and held his hand against his forehead as if preparing for the mother of all migraines. His team had just been stunned by UCLA 13-9, lost its chance to play for the national championship, lost its claim to be a modern-day college football dynasty and, more than anything, lost its way.
UCLA didn't just beat USC. No, the unranked Bruins ambushed them, bamboozled them, crushed them. And in the process, they answered what for four years seemed like the unsolvable riddle: How do you stop USC's offense?
Under Carroll, that offense has rolled with the force of a tsunami into the past two Bowl Championship Series title games. They claimed the AP national championship the season before that. The Trojans had scored 20 or more points in an NCAA-record 63 games. Sure, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush were gone. But to some degree, that scarcely mattered.
With quarterback John David Booty at the controls, and with receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith at his disposal, USC was averaging 32.3 points per game this season. Coming off a 44-24 victory over sixth-ranked Notre Dame, the Trojans once again looked explosive. But now, Carroll looked shell-shocked.
"This has never happened to us," Carroll muttered. "We've never given anybody that much of a head of steam on defense."
The USC coach suggested he'd have to look at the film to see what exactly went wrong for the Trojans and right for the Bruins. But there was no need to wait.
A defensive gameplan masterminded by DeWayne Walker nearly was executed to perfection. It started with relentless pressure by UCLA defensive ends Bruce Davis and Justin Hickman. It depended on solid coverage from a secondary charged to stay with Jarrett and Smith long enough for the pass rush to pressure Booty. And the plan featured a variety of blitzes, disguised coverages and big plays that left Carroll looking almost as perplexed as his quarterback.
Walker, the former USC assistant under Carroll, had two weeks to prepare for the Trojans.
Poring over game film, Walker identified USC's favorite routes, identified the Trojans' favorite personnel groupings and eventually pinpointed the target: Booty. Walker said he never worried about matching wits with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian or Carroll.
"As far as I was concerned, it was me against Booty," Walker said. "I think it all depended in my mind, and just preparing, that if I can get into his head we would have a chance to win. It was me against Booty because the ball starts with him first. So I just wanted to do stuff to confuse him or to try to raise any doubt. I tried to give a lot of looks to make him doubt what he was doing. He made some plays, too. He's a very good quarterback."
UCLA was a very good defense Saturday.
BRINGING THE HEAT
On USC's second series, Davis said he looked across the line of scrimmage at Trojans left tackle Sam Baker and warned, "You're going to need some help. I'm coming. I'm not going to stop coming, every time."
Davis and Hickman relentlessly speed rushed from the edges. Bruin linebackers and defensive backs selectively blitzed up the middle. Booty was, literally, on his heels.
"After that first series, let's face it, he was scared," Davis said. "They didn't realize how fast we were, and we were bringing heat the whole day. And they were false starting. That second drive, they knew what was coming, and they were trying to kick back and get out of there. And we were just running around them.
"A couple of times Booty stepped up and made a couple of good throws, but he was never comfortable back there. We were forcing him to make plays with his feet, make throws on the run, and that's not what they want to do. They want him to sit back, and he wants to lock in on his two great receivers."
But thanks to Walker's game plan, UCLA's defensive backs knew where those receivers were headed. They knew USC depended on inside routes – underneath, over the top and fades to Jarrett. So the Bruins gambled, edging inside.
The bet paid dividends. Jarrett, coming off a three-touchdown performance against Notre Dame, caught just four passes for 68 yards and never found the end zone. Smith caught six balls for 65 yards.
"We just couldn't get the timing down," Jarrett said. "They were bringing a lot of pressure, and that was preventing Booty from getting us the ball. We were open downfield; he just couldnt get it off."
Ah, Booty, Walker's target. The quarterback was under so much fire, at one point, he stumbled and fell down in the backfield, as if sacked by a phantom Bruin. Though sacked just twice, he spent much of the day running for his life. His final stats: 23-of-39 passing, 274 yards and no touchdowns. Bruins senior Eric McNeal provided the final indignity, deflecting and then intercepting a Booty pass with 1:10 remaining at the UCLA 20, snuffing what could have been the go-ahead score.
"When they're getting to you, it is going to disrupt your game," Booty said. "But it wasn't something I hadn't seen. It's just tough to make plays when guys are coming free sometimes.
"A lot of our offense is based on getting [Jarrett] the ball. And when you have two, sometimes three guys on him, it can be difficult to do that. Obviously you don't want to get [interceptions] or turnovers. He's an unbelievable player, [but] you can't force the issue of trying to get him the ball."
THE FINAL ANALYSIS
UCLA held USC to a measly 55 yards rushing on 29 carries. They gave up nearly 300 yards passing, but no big plays. In fact, they gave up not a single touchdown through the air.
The pupil, Walker, had just handed the teacher, Carroll, his lunch.
"Pete taught me this and it's one thing I'll always remember. He always said when you can get a defense that can run and tackle, you've got something," Walker said.
Then he grinned extra wide.
"I'm just glad I didn't let him down."
As shocking as the sight of the scoreboard was at game's end, there was another postgame spectacle even more unexpected.
UCLA coach Karl Dorrell, often more mannequin than motivator on the sideline, pumping his fist and pointing to the sky.
"I didn't believe it until the clock hit zero," Dorrell said. "All we wanted to do was stay close and get a chance to win. I know how important this win is for the Bruin family. I know that it's been a long time."
Since 1998 to be exact, and just a year after USC pounded the Bruins 66-19.
On an odd day in the Arroyo Seco, the odds be damned.