LOS ANGELES — Vavae Malepeai rushed for three touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough as USC football fell to rival UCLA, 62-33.
It was Malepeai’s first three-touchdown game of his five-year career at USC. The redshirt senior captain had not scored during the first eight games of the season and rushed for just 257 total yards heading into Saturday.
The Trojans suffered their first home loss to the Bruins at United Airlines Field at L.A. Coliseum since 2013. USC (4-6, 3-5 Pac-12) must win its final two games — at home next week against Brigham Young and the Dec. 4 postponed contest at California — to earn bowl eligibility.
True freshman Jaxson Dart was 27-for-47 and finished with 325 passing yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in his first career start. Head coach Donte Williams named Dart the starter on Monday and revealed incumbent Kedon Slovis would be out with a leg injury.
Gary Bryant Jr., who became USC’s No. 1 receiver after Drake London was ruled out or the season with an ankle injury, caught nine passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. Keaontay Ingram rushed for 96 yards on 17 carries.
The Trojans took a 3-0 lead with Alex Stadthaus’ field goal after USC marched 63 yards on the game’s opening drive. The next three possessions saw two interceptions from Dorian Thompson-Robinson and a pick by Dart.
UCLA scored on its first of many big-yardage plays on a 45-yard touchdown pass. The Trojans responded with Malepeai’s first rushing touchdown on a seven-yard run to take a 10-7 lead.
The Bruins pummeled the Trojans with a 21-0 run, highlighted by Thompson-Robinson’s 23-yard and 58-yard touchdown passes. USC’s offense was stagnant for much of the second quarter until the Trojans drove 67 yards on eight plays that ended with Malepeai’s second touchdown.
After conceding a touchdown to open the second half, the Trojans tried to rally with Stadthaus’ 23-yard field goal and Dart’s 44-yard scoring pass to Bryant Jr. to cut the deficit to 35-26.
UCLA quelled USC’s effort with a 100-yard kickoff and cruised with three other touchdowns to put the game out of reach.
The Trojans play their home finale next week against BYU on Senior Night, next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. PT on ESPN
Credit: USC Athletic Department
LOS ANGELES — As Jaxson Dart sat down at the podium, the streak of black down his right eye smeared, sweaty hair hanging in his face, there was no trace of satisfaction on his face for having made his first career start. Just the bitterness of USC’s 62-33 defeat to UCLA hardening his features.
There was little to feel good about from the Trojans’ effort, and Dart’s performance was a mixed bag to evaluate, too.
From a statistical standpoint, Dart had a pedestrian game. He completed 57.4% of his passes for 325 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He moved the USC offense for 484 total yards, though, and five scores in five red-zone attempts. The Trojans did settle for field goals twice, a familiar trend for USC this season.
“I feel like I missed a lot. Wasn’t able to do enough to come out with the win,” Dart said. “I felt like I honestly didn’t make too many bad reads. I felt like I could see the field pretty well. Just missed some things here or there.”
Dart was not helped by the numerous drops by his receivers, including three in third-down situations in the first half. And he had little time to operate in the pocket with the pressure UCLA dialed up against the Trojans’ beleaguered offensive line.
But it was clear that Dart wasn’t playing at the same level as he was prior to his meniscus surgery in September. He wasn’t his typical dual-threat self, being sacked three times and accounting for negative-25 rushing yards.
And early in the game, he didn’t look comfortable with down-field throws. His only completion of more than 20 yards in the first half came on a throw behind the line of scrimmage to Keaontay Ingram that the running back took for 32 yards. One of his first attempts was tipped up and intercepted by UCLA after Dart threw into tight coverage.
But it seemed like his comfort level increased as the game went on. In the third quarter, Dart connected with Gary Bryant Jr. for passes of 28, 44 and 37 yards. The pair linked up for another 33-yard completion in the fourth.
“He played great, took shots, that’s who he is,” Bryant said. “I like the way he played and I look forward to seeing him later on.”
Added offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, “I think he did a whole lot of good things. The one pick in the red zone, I think he’d like to have back. Other than that, there were some freshman mistakes, sure, but he did a lot of good things. And even the first pick, trying to make a play, it’s third-and-long, he’ll learn from that one.”
With Kedon Slovis’ timeline to return from a lower leg injury still up in the air, Dart reiterated the message of building off this start.
“I’m gonna make the adjustments I need to and fix them so we can come back and come out victorious the next one,” he said.
Adam Grosbard: Orange County Register