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Renewing the Crosstown Rivalry

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It was an ugly game. To call it a defensive battle would be claiming that the offenses were actually threatening to break the contest open. In truth, both offenses were anemic. For the defenses, it must have felt like swatting flies. It would seem USC won because their defense had a slightly bigger flyswatter.

A couple days later, the way history will remember the 79th meeting between USC and UCLA is clarifying. This game won't be remembered for the final score. It will be remembered for it's final minute.

It's a society of sound bites and highlights and what the first fifty-nine minutes couldn't deliver, the sixtieth certainly did.

So much hype surrounded the hiring of Rick Neuheisel, a former Bruin quarterback. He seemed to have the perfect disposition to invigorate the UCLA football program. He was his own version of the boyish, wild-eyed winner Pete Carroll had become across town. Neuheisel seemed like he had a shot to steal a few recruits from the Trojan pro football factory. You got a sense that Rick might make a dent in USC's armor.

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Then UCLA jumped the gun. They printed an ad in the L.A. Times that became the first stone cast in Neuheisel v. Carroll. The ad showed a confident Neuheisel in full UCLA gear pointing toward some unknown void. The copy read, "The Football Monopoly in Los Angeles is Officially Over!"

This ad ran, of course, before the season began. What followed was a 4-8 season for the Sons of Westwood for an 8th place finish in the Pac Ten. How did Neuheisel do against the Trojans? A 28-7 home loss, good for UCLA's ninth loss in their previous ten tries against their crosstown rival.

Apparently, the football monopoly in Los Angeles wasn't quite over yet.

Trojan fans took in the Bruin advertisement and then found great delight when someone Photoshop'd the word "there" at the end of the ad. Now there was a punchline to UCLA's poorly-timed declaration: An ad reading "The Football Monopoly in Los Angeles is Officially Over There" with Neuheisel seemingly pointing east down the 10 towards the Coliseum.

Last Saturday's ho-hum contest carried none of the joy of a crosstown rivalry for fifty-nine minutes. There was no venom. This was the perfect example of why USC/UCLA is often cast aside as a rivalry in favor of meatier disputes like those between Michigan/Ohio State, Texas/Oklahoma and pretty much any two school you pick in the SEC.

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This rivalry had become toothless.

I wanted stories like that of Woody Hayes and his decision to make his Buckeyes push their team bus a few miles back into Ohio after running out of gas because he refused to refuel across Michigan state lines. That's the kind of gusto we need. It's nonsensical! It's tasteless! It's a rivalry!

In that sixtieth minute, we may have finally seen the true beginning of Neuheisel v. Carroll. This wasn't a silly advertisement in a newspaper. This was two big personalities on display.

With under a minute left in the game and holding an insurmountable two touchdown lead, USC lined up in victory formation and took a knee. It was an offer of a peaceful surrender. Neuheisel refused it.

The UCLA coach called a time out with 52 seconds left on the game clock. The crowd booed and hissed. For some, this was a classless waste of time. For others, this was a sign that UCLA wanted to fight to the death against it's rival (even if they were barely still breathing). Either way, it got Pete Carroll's attention.

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On the next play, USC quarterback Matt Barkley ran a play action pass, finding a wide-open Damien Williams in the end zone for a USC touchdown. Carroll was exuberant on the sidelines. The Trojans hooted and hollered. Neuheisel looked stunned. It seemed as though he never anticipated his request for another play would result in that play.

Rick had asked for more. He certainly got it.

USC began to taunt their powder blue rivals causing the Bruins to march to midfield. Coaches ushered players back and UCLA ended the game with a fruitless drive yielding no points. There was bad blood. Plenty of it.

After the game, both Neuheisel and Carroll downplayed the events on field, but the truth was, it was all classless. It was ugly. It was provocation and payback. It was one-upsmanship.

It was a rivalry, baby.

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In front of the city and all the local recruits deciding which school they liked better, they saw a quick exchange between two aggressive coaches. They saw Neuheisel slap Carroll in the face with a timeout. They saw Carroll whack Neuheisel with a sledgehammer with a long touchdown pass.

What the rest of us saw was fifty-nine minutes of uninspired football, one minute of flat-out open warfare and the rekindled hopes that the Trojans and Bruins will get back to making this rivalry special again.

The personalities are there. The first shots have been exchanged. Let's let the games begin.