Allegiance and refreshing aren’t words that often describe mid-level bowl games.
Head coaches are watching their backsides, and assistants are eyeing openings. Players are skipping games to transfer or jump to the NFL. Many teams — USC and UCLA are prime examples — are coming off unspeakable losses and roller-coaster regular seasons.
But homegrown, unheralded quarterbacks Miller Moss and Ethan Garbers shifted the narrative for the Trojans and Bruins this month. Both are uncommonly loyal to their schools and invigorating to their teammates.
Moss patiently waited his turn for three seasons and then blossomed in a matter of hours Wednesday night, throwing six touchdown passes during USC’s Holiday Bowl victory over Louisville.
“It’s just more a testament to the guys in that locker room and to the leadership and our coaching staff that made me want to stay,” Moss said. “I love those guys. I’ll ride for those guys.”
Garbers, long considered a placeholder while five-star recruit Dante Moore matured, came off the bench to lead UCLA past Boise State, 35-22, in the LA Bowl, allowing coach Chip Kelly to turn the page on the one-sided loss to Cal that ended the regular season.
“Coach Kelly says all the time, ‘Life is hard, and if you can find a way to get through these battles and win these battles, it’s gonna help you out in the long run,’” Garbers said.
The prospect of Moore transferring had been a doomsday scenario for Bruins fans. But his departure to Oregon elicited mostly shrugs because Garbers simply outperformed him.
Caleb Williams, USC’s 2022 Heisman Trophy winner, is projected to be a high first-round pick in the NFL draft. With the Trojans coming off five losses in their last six games, few faulted him for sitting out the Holiday Bowl. The last image of him at USC, however, will be him giving Moss a huge hug after the 42-28 victory.
Despite the bowl heroics, neither Garbers nor Moss is guaranteed a starting job next fall.
UCLA signed freshmen quarterbacks Karson Gordon from Bellaire (Texas) Episcopal and Henry Hasselbeck from Westwood (Mass.) Xaverian Brothers last week and also will return Collin Schlee, Justyn Martin and Luke Duncan. Garbers should enter camp as the presumptive favorite, but the quarterback room will be crowded.
USC coach Lincoln Riley indicated before the Holiday Bowl that he plans to add one or two quarterbacks through the transfer portal. Five-star freshman Malachi Nelson has departed, leaving Moss as the only incumbent.
Will Howard from Kansas State, DJ Uiagalelei from Oregon State and Cameron Ward from Washington State are the top names in the portal, although none is close to the level of Williams. Moss should fully expect to compete for the starting job after his stellar performance Wednesday.
Moss and Garbers are local products who crisscrossed the Southland to reach their destinations. Both trained under longtime L.A. quarterback guru Steve Clarkson.
Garbers is from Newport Beach, a hotbed for USC followers, and attended Corona del Mar High. He redshirted for one season at Washington before transferring to UCLA ahead of the 2021 season, played sparingly for two years behind Dorian Thompson-Robinson, then split time with Moore and, to a lesser extent, Schlee this season.
Moss is from Santa Monica, a short drive from UCLA, although he grew up a USC fan because his mom, Emily Kovner Moss, was a professor at the USC School of Architecture. He attended Loyola High in downtown Los Angeles as a freshman before transferring to Bishop Alemany in Mission Hills, where he played under former Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen.
Besides Garbers’ redshirt year at Washington, both quarterbacks stayed close to home, finding reasons to remain positive while grinding through life as a backup. Their allegiance paid off this bowl season.