USC Wins But Doesn't Sell

PASADENA, Calif. - This is Hollywood territory, been-there-done-that country. All they're interested in around here is box office.

Tradition is for Peoria. Or Lincoln. You better put something on the plate - or, more specifically, on the field - if you want to sell tickets.

USC-UCLA football supposedly is the greatest cross-town rivalry in America, but that didn't ring a bell - the Victory Bell, still in the possession of the Trojans - to a public raised on Academy Awards and self-importance.

There has to be an attraction, which there is a few miles away in Tiger Woods, who has been playing like the old days. And there is in Kobe Bryant, also a few miles way, who for years has led the Lakers. But there wasn't with a college football game matching a team ineligible for bowl games (USC) and a team unqualified for almost any game (UCLA).

In the Rose Bowl, with a capacity of more than 90,000, attendance Saturday night was only 71,105 as USC gleefully whipped the Bruins 28-14.

Ohio State-Michigan or Alabama-Auburn would have people begging for tickets no matter what, but that isn't the case in SoCal the region, even if SoCal the school is involved.

When for the first time in 10 years neither the Trojans nor Bruins were ranked nationally, the game simply didn't register, even with the alums. When there are nearly 20,000 empty seats, as the saying goes in Tinseltown, you've laid an egg.

A letter writer to the Los Angeles Times called the game "a classic struggle between a movable force and a resistible object. May the worse team lose.'' And UCLA, the worse team, playing at home, did lose. Again.

Something Andy Roddick said after dropping yet another Wimbledon final to Roger Federer comes to mind: "How can you call it a rivalry when one side wins all the time?'' Something like that was Roddick's observation.

How really can you call this a rivalry? USC has won four straight and 11 of the last 12. This is a one-team town. Pete Carroll may have fled to Seattle. The NCAA may have put the Trojans on probation this year and next for all that Reggie Bush hanky-panky. But USC, now coached by Lane Kiffin, keeps rolling along.

The Trojans, despite some whining from the fan base, despite the loss to Notre Dame last weekend, still finished with an 8-5 record. UCLA was 4-8. UCLA was embarrassing.

"I'm very happy for our fans,'' said Kiffin after his first season. "They've gone through a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with them. To finish off this way is very big for our fans."

Even though great numbers of them didn't appear.

"I'm proud of our players,'' said Kiffin, who then referred to the reduction of scholarships because of the penalty. "We were down in numbers, but our guys stepped up."

UCLA briefly managed to tie USC 7-7 in the first quarter on a 59-run by Jonathan Franklin. That was an aberration. USC returned a UCLA fumble for a touchdown. USC intercepted a couple of passes. USC scored on two big plays in the fourth quarter.

And before kickoff, what started as a touch football game in one of the parking lots surrounding the Rose Bowl turned into a brawl involving some 75 people during which two people were stabbed and three were arrested. Police said the fight was fueled by passion and alcohol.

At a sporting event? That's hard to believe.

Not hard to believe are the reasons USC dominates UCLA. The Trojans have better players, and those players are coached better. No secrets there.

"We just turned over the ball too much,'' said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel. "And we couldn't stop the run. They just gashed us. But our three turnovers were the difference.

"In this game, in the season, we didn't make the play when we had to make the play. We've got to figure out the formula to getting it done."

The formula is getting an offensive line that matches USC's. And linebackers who match USC's. And a quarterback who matches USC's Matt Barkley. Early on, UCLA, with sophomore Richard Brehaut at QB, was only 1-for-8 passing.

"It was a game we had our chances,'' said Neuheisel, a generic viewpoint because in every game a team has chances. It's what it does with them. UCLA did little. USC did enough.

The thinking back in September was with the Trojans reeling from the NCAA sanctions, UCLA would step forward and take over the L.A. market. An erroneous premise. USC, even when it can't go to the postseason, even when it gets beat by Oregon and Stanford, is not going to relinquish supremacy.

USC still has control. What it didn't have Saturday was the full house of past years.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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