Poor sports? UCLA, USC flaunt etiquette
November 30, 2009
LOS ANGELES – So what’s a bigger breach of football etiquette: Calling a timeout when your opponent is running out the clock with a 14-point lead, or responding to that timeout by throwing a long touchdown pass?
In the Coliseum and on the Internet, the debate rolled across Los Angeles on Sunday morning after the action-packed final minute of USC’s 28-7 victory over UCLA.
Bragging rights, bowl prospects, two bad offensive performances and the USC defense’s rebirth were pretty much all forgotten while everybody parsed the sportsmanship of coaches Pete Carroll and Rick Neuheisel in the waning moments of the Trojans’ third straight win in the crosstown showdown.
“They can’t disrespect us like that,” said USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who threw the 48-yard TD pass with 44 seconds left.
“I don’t forget much,” Neuheisel said.
The shenanigans even stoked a potential brawl, with both teams edging toward midfield to exchange taunts before calming down. Carroll and Neuheisel both publicly claimed they had no problem with each other’s actions – even if almost everybody else picked sides after the coaches exchanged a brief, loveless handshake.
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“It is just the heart of a competitor, just battling,” Carroll said. “We just wanted to win the game and have fun. When the moment was there, it wasn’t thinking about what (others) might be thinking. You are either competing, or you’re not.”
Both teams’ competitive fires were fully stoked by the sequence that began when USC stopped the Bruins near midfield on downs with 54 seconds left, preserving a 21-7 lead after Allen Bradford’s second TD run a few moments earlier. Barkley then kneeled on the ball – but Neuheisel called the first of his three timeouts, drawing lusty boos from the USC crowd.
“I was trying to make them punt, and maybe if they run, we cause a fumble,” Neuheisel said. “They have their take on it, but I was trying to get the ball back. People can make their own conclusions. … I don’t blame them for doing it.”
USC play-caller Jeremy Bates suggested a long pass, and Carroll eagerly agreed. Damian Williams got loose down the middle, and Barkley hit him for a score.
“There’s still a lot of time on the game clock,” Bates said of his reasoning. “They were going to try to stop our running play, so we called a play-action pass.”
Carroll should be particularly sensitive to charges of piling it on after his experience just two weeks earlier, when Stanford curiously went for a 2-point conversion with a 27-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 55-21 thrashing of the Trojans. Carroll claimed he didn’t fault Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh for clearly rubbing it in, even if his fans took great offense.
“Jeremy had the thought,” Carroll said. “I said, ‘That’s a heck of a call, man.'”
And to think, a timeout in last year’s USC-UCLA game was a shining symbol of good sportsmanship. When both teams decided to revive the long-dormant tradition of wearing home jerseys in the rivalry game, officials were forced to take away a timeout from USC, thanks to a since-changed NCAA rule – and UCLA immediately called its own timeout, drawing cheers from the Rose Bowl crowd.
Almost everybody agreed the taunting and posturing that followed Williams’ TD catch and the extra point was in poor taste. The Trojans appeared to start it, although both teams insisted there was no chance of a real fight going down.
“I don’t think it was close,” Neuheisel said. “Looking on TV, it could look close, but the bottom line is it doesn’t belong in the game.”
With defensive tackle Jurrell Casey doing the most hollering, USC bounced, jumped and shouted in unison on its sideline, moving several yards onto the field with numerous inciting gestures straight at the UCLA sideline. The Bruins then moved well across the middle of the field, where officials and coaches got between the teams.
“There was a lot of energy going on there,” Carroll said. “I wish it didn’t go like that, though.”
Everybody eventually retreated to their sidelines, but the moment was unsettling at best and profoundly unsportsmanlike at worst.
“I don’t take offense,” UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter insisted. “If we were winning, I would have done the exact same thing. I still shook hands with everybody on that team.”
While UCLA wrapped up the regular season at 6-6, the Bruins still have bowl aspirations hinging on an at-large invitation from the Humanitarian or New Mexico bowls, who both sent scouts to the game. Even a lower-tier bowl would be a boost to Neuheisel’s rebuilding effort, the coach acknowledges.
And with its string of seven straight Pac-10 championships at an end, USC (8-3, 5-3) still must play Arizona at the Coliseum on Saturday. While still technically a BCS bowl candidate, the Trojans are likely to end up in the Holiday or Sun bowls if they beat the Wildcats.