For both USC and UCLA, crosstown rivalry game has provided jolt to lifeless season

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is threatened by USC linebacker Drake Jackson on Dec 12, 2020 at the Rose Bowl. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

As their seasons slipped away and their tenures grew tenuous, each of the last three UCLA football coaches marched into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at a crossroads … never to make the 11-mile trip back across town.

A narrow loss at USC in 2017 served as the final dagger in the Jim Mora era. For Rick Neuheisel, a 50-0 embarrassment in 2011 at the hands of the Bruins’ bitter rival brought about a swift end to a four-year run that had yielded just one winning season. Before that, Karl Dorrell left the crosstown rivalry with his walking papers in 2007, a day after being trampled by the Trojans for the fourth time in five seasons.

But each of those three brought better records into the rivalry defeats than the Bruins’ current coach will Saturday. Chip Kelly is a meager 16-25 since arriving at UCLA, with only two victories against teams that finished with winning records. Two more games remain for Kelly to save his job, but as another unsatisfying season under the Bruins coach comes to a close, the precedent set by his predecessors begs a big question:

Could a loss to an unraveling rival be his last straw at UCLA?

For USC, there are no such questions. Its own embattled coach, Clay Helton, was cut loose so long ago he’s already found another landing spot. USC has been spiraling since September, losing three of its last four. Any chance of preserving bowl eligibility and salvaging what’s left of its season hangs on the hopes that the slumping Trojans suddenly find a spark.

Those hopes likely face their last stand this week against UCLA. But players and coaches have insisted all week that the rivalry has provided the jolt they needed to defibrillate a lifeless…

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