Most USC fans would prefer to forget the 2000 season, and with good reason. For the first time ever, the Trojans finished last in the Pac-10 (tied with Cal and WSU, though they lost to both those teams). After starting 3-0, the Trojans went on a five-game losing streak, allowing Stanford to beat them on the final play and letting Arizona State score 32 unanswered points before winning in double-overtime. By the end of the year, quarterback Carson Palmer had thrown 16 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He was so ineffective that coach Paul Hackett benched him during the Washington State loss. Hackett himself was fired at the end of the 5-7 season.
But 2000 provided one of the most exciting USC-UCLA games in the rivalry’s history and deserves to be remembered. It was a shootout in the Rose Bowl that featured trick plays, three scores in the final four minutes, and a last-second triumph by an unlikely hero.
It was November 18, 2000, and UCLA took the lead just 20 seconds into the game. Penalties had backed the Trojans up to the goalline. Marques Anderson knocked the ball out of fullback Chad Pierson’s hands and then recovered it in the endzone. It seemed like USC’s entire season in a nutshell.
But on the ensuing possession, Palmer led the Trojans on an 80-yard drive, capped by an eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Antone Harris. That set the pattern of the game -- UCLA going up by a touchdown, USC tying the score, then UCLA scoring again. The first half ended with the scored tied at 21.
For the most part, the USC defense was doing its job. At halftime, UCLA had only 18 yards rushing (all by DeShaun Foster) and had only achieved four first downs. The score was so close because of Anderson’s fumble recovery (hardly the USC defense’s fault) and a trick play in which Bruin running back Freddie Mitchell took a direct snap and then threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to WR Brian Poli-Dixon.
The back-and-forth continued in the second half. Mitchell caught a short touchdown pass, and then so did USC receiver Keary Colbert. UCLA’s struggling offense was again helped by a trick play; this time, a fake field goal that led to a first down on the Trojan eight.
Ah, yes -- field goals. USC’s 2010 kicking game has nothing on the 2000 edition. David Newbury was the kicker at the beginning of the season, but he was so shaky that Hackett replaced him with John Wall...who then was injured and replaced with David Bell. This trio combined for eight field goals out of 16 attempts. Bell had missed all three of his field goal attempts so far, including a fourth-quarter 24-yarder in this game. Things were so bad that Hackett had opted for a fake field goal in the second quarter, though the attempt would have been only 36 yards.
It looked like USC wouldn’t need Bell when it took its first lead of the game with just under four minutes to play on a 57-yard TD catch by Steve Stevenson. But UCLA QB Cory Paus led the Bruins on a 75-yard drive in nine plays and three minutes, tying the score with 1:05 remaining.
Palmer took the Trojans down the field: a 13-yard run by Malaefou MacKenzie, then a 12-yard pass to Kareem Kelly, then a five-yard pass to Harris. UCLA helped by kicking the ball out of bounds, which started the drive on the USC 35, and with a ten-yard holding penalty. USC was on the 19-yard-line with nine seconds left. According to the Los Angeles Times, Hackett asked Bell, "Can I count on you to win the game?" Bell replied, "You can count on me." The senior had made exactly one field goal in his entire career.
To add to the drama, the holder, Matt Nickels, couldn’t quite move his finger out of the way and hit the ball as Bell kicked it. Somehow the ball stayed on target and just barely cleared the crossbar. And USC had a new hero.
Carson Palmer was the star of the game. He threw for 350 yards (UCLA had 328 yards total) and four touchdowns. He ran bootlegs of 16 and 35 yards. Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke called the game an "awakening" for Palmer, and "the first game of the rest of his life." He would, of course, go on to win the Heisman two years later.
And maybe all that success began with the 2000 UCLA game. But that game came down to David Bell’s winning kick.