LOS ANGELES — Whether it was on offense, defense or special teams, multi-talented Adoree’ Jackson has made countless big plays during his two seasons at USC.
But none as big as his 43-yard punt return for a touchdown Nov. 28 against UCLA at the Coliseum.
The score with 1:44 remaining in the second quarter not only sent the Trojans into the locker room leading the Bruins 20-14 at halftime, but also provided a spark that appeared to key USC to its first victory against its cross-town rival since 2011.
Moreover, the Trojans captured the Pac-12 South Division title with the 40-21 win and earned a spot in the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 5 versus Stanford at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
The Trojans (8-4) are one win away from playing in their first Rose Bowl since the 2009 season.
“We just wanted to worry about the Pac-12 South [today],” said Jackson, who was one of the nation’s most heavily recruited players after starring at Serra High School in Gardena. “Last week we lost [at Oregon], but God blessed us with another opportunity to play for the Rose Bowl.”
USC made the most of the opportunity, especially late in the first half. Linebacker Scott Felix sacked UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen for a 14-yard loss on third down that backed the Bruins up to their 9-yard line.
Matt Mengel, punting from his own end zone, got off a low, line drive kick that Jackson caught at the UCLA 43. The 5-8, 190-pound sophomore shook off UCLA’s Cameron Judge and sprinted to the end zone for the touchdown much to the chagrin of UCLA Coach Jim Mora.
“We tried to keep it away from him or make him move to catch it,” said Mora, who lost to USC for the first time in four meetings. “We did a good job except for that play. Those ‘except for’ plays are certainly a difference.”
Jackson, who primarily plays cornerback also returns punts and kickoffs and is utilized often at wide receiver, was credited with six solo tackles and with breaking up two pass plays.
“We did our job today,” Jackson said. “We had Coach [Clay] Helton, our entire staff and the fans behind us.”
He rushed once for no yardage and did not catch a pass, but his touchdown-scoring punt return will rank among the top plays in the 85-year history of the rivalry.
“The more times that guy touches it, it’s [like] playing with poison,” Mora said.
USC’s Rasheem Green, another Serra High School product, also etched his name into the annals of the storied rivalry. A true freshman, the 6-5, 285-pound defensive lineman scooped up a loose ball that had been stripped from Rosen’s grasp and rumbled 31 yards untouched for a touchdown in the third quarter.
“They said I looked slow,” Green said. “I said, well, I scored.”
Thanks to Green, the Trojans regained the lead, 26-21, a lead they never relinquished. Like Jackson’s punt return, Green’s alert play shifted momentum back to the Trojans. He picked up the loose ball after USC’s Claude Pelon smothered Rosen and forced the fumble.
“I think our team vibe went up right there, and theirs went down.” Green said.