Biggest USC-UCLA football matchup in decades stirs up 'bitter feeling' from years past

Dorian Thompson-Robinson is as fearless speaking to the media as he is throwing tight-window passes or hurdling diving defenders.

The UCLA quarterback held nothing back earlier this week when discussing Saturday's highly anticipated showdown against crosstown rival USC.

Asked what his final matchup with USC means to him, Thompson-Robinson bluntly explained to reporters, “Obviously we hate those guys across town. There’s a bitter feeling with those guys." The fifth-year senior added that he hopes to surpass his exploits from the USC game a year ago when he accounted for six touchdowns in a 62-33 UCLA romp.

“We want to be even better,” Thompson-Robinson said. “We want to break 60 and all that stuff.”

Thompson-Robinson’s candor supplies fresh intrigue to what was already the highest-stakes USC-UCLA football game in 17 years. The Trojans and Bruins haven’t both entered this game with such gaudy records since Reggie Bush was zigzagging through defenses wearing cardinal and gold and Maurice Jones-Drew was running through arm tackles clad in powder blue.

USC (9-1, 7-1 in Pac-12) is the Pac-12’s last hope for a berth in this season’s College Football Playoff. The Trojans must win massive rivalry games against UCLA and Notre Dame, defeat Oregon, Utah or Washington in the Pac-12 title game and hope that’s enough to ascend from their current No. 7 spot in the playoff selection committee’s rankings.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) accounted for six touchdowns in a 62-33 victory over USC last year. He's looking for an encore performance on Saturday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) accounted for six touchdowns in a 62-33 victory over USC last year. He's looking for an encore performance on Saturday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

While UCLA’s own faint playoff hopes disintegrated with last Saturday’s stunning face plant against Arizona, the Bruins (8-2, 5-2) have more to play for this week than just spoiling USC’s season. UCLA can still win a tiebreaker to advance to the Pac-12 title game if it wins out against USC and Cal and Washington loses at least one more game.

The stakes have distracted Los Angeles sports fans from the Lakers’ struggles for at least one weekend. UCLA announced on Tuesday that the USC game is a sellout and that it is expecting a student turnout of 16,700, which would be the biggest in school history.

If UCLA’s loss to Arizona sucked any air out of Saturday’s showdown, Thompson-Robinson’s verbal barbs pumped it right back up. USC players reacted to the UCLA quarterback’s goal of breaking 60 points again with a mixture of humility, incredulity and resolve.

“He said that?” USC safety Calen Bullock asked reporters.

When told that Thompson-Robinson did, Bullock chuckled and said, “He has his own opinion.”

“I know that’s not going to happen,” Bullock added.

Piling up another 60 points against USC is an ambitious goal, but UCLA is explosive enough to strike fear in any defense. The Bruins have averaged 39.5 points per game this season thanks largely to Thompson-Robinson’s efficient passing and improvisation under pressure, senior Zach Charbonnet’s tackle-breaking runs and Duke transfer Jake Bobo’s highlight-reel catches. Charbonnet tallied 167 rushing yards in last year’s UCLA victory. He should be a focal point of the Bruins’ game plan again this year against a suspect USC defensive front.

Where UCLA has been more vulnerable is on defense, especially through the air. Quarterbacks far less talented than USC’s Caleb Williams have consistently carved up UCLA’s secondary so far this season. The Trojans will miss injured running back Travis Dye, the heart and soul of this year’s team, but Lincoln Riley has other players ready to step up. Stanford transfer Austin Jones can run the ball capably and five-star freshman Raleek Brown has been waiting for his chance to shine.

“Those other guys are good,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly told reporters on Monday. “And then there’s weapons everywhere, whether it’s at receiver, at quarterback or at running back. It’s not just a running back-driven offense.”

What the matchups suggest is that this is likely to be a shootout, just as the past few games in this series have been.

On Dec. 12, 2020, USC came to the Rose Bowl and eked out a 43-38 victory in the final minute. Afterward, according to Thompson-Robinson, the Trojans talked trash to the Bruins on their way off the field.

“I remember that clear as day,” the UCLA quarterback said. “Cussing at us, flipping us off. Disrespectful as you can get.”

Last year, at the Coliseum, the Bruins got their revenge. Thompson-Robinson famously earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a late touchdown run when he obliged a 12-year-old USC fan who held out a UCLA hat for him to sign.

Now comes Thompson-Robinson’s final USC-UCLA game, the most significant one yet.

“There’s definitely a bitter feeling toward those guys across town,” Thompson-Robinson said, “so we’re going to try to do everything we can to go out there and win.”