• The UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans clash on Saturday at 12:05 p.m. in the Rose Bowl. The game will be televised by FOX, with Gus Johnson and Charles Davis in the booth, and Julia Alexandria on the sidelines.
• UCLA is 8-2 (5-2), and USC is 7-3 (5-3).
• UCLA is ranked 17th in the BCS, 17th in the AP and 16th in the USA Today Poll.
• USC is 21st in the BCS, 18th in the AP and 21st in USA Today.
• It's the 82nd time the two schools will play each other in football, with USC holding a 46-28-7 advantage. USC has won the last five in a row, and 12 of the last 13. Before that, UCLA set the series record by winning 8 in a row from 1991 to 1998.
• USC won last season in the Coliseum, 50-0.
• The winner of the game between the crosstown rivals will represent the Pac-12 South Division in the Pac-12 Championship Game November 30th.
• It's the first time since 1988 that the game's winner could control its own destiny in getting a berth in the Rose Bowl.
• UCLA enters the game ranked higher and with more wins than USC for the first time since 2001.
• UCLA's ranking in the BCS is its highest since 2005, when it was ranked 16th. The last time UCLA was ranked higher in either the AP or USA Today Poll was at the end of the 2005 season (13th on USA Today, 16th AP).
• The victor of the game, of course, gets ownership of the Victory Bel for a year.
• USC is coached by Lane Kiffin, who is in his third year in South Central. He is 25-10 at USC, and 32-16 overall as a college football coach, going 7-6 at Tennessee in his one season there. Kiffin is considered an offensive coach, functioning at USC's de facto offensive coordinator, calling the plays for the Trojans. Kiffin, 37, is a controversial figure, having been through a good amount of controversy in his two-year stint as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders and his one year with the Volunteers. Controversy caught up with him again this season, too. He was caught lying about who he voted #1 in the Coach's Poll. He stripped L.A. Daily News Writer Scott Wolf of his credential without Wolf having violated any USC media rule. In the Trojans' game against Colorado, USC backup quarterback Cody Kessler changed his jersey from No. 6 to No. 35, to try to deceive Colorado on a two-point conversion, seemingly in violation of the NCAA rule about changing jerseys in an attempt to deceive the opponent. Then, two weeks ago against Oregon, a USC student manager deflated footballs before and during the game, apparently to give USC's pass-oriented offense an advantage. The manager was subsequently fired, and Kiffin swore no knowledge of the ploy. Kiffin is getting a good amount of grief from the media and even the Trojan faithfhul for a disappointing season, one in which USC began the season ranked #1, with Matt Barkley declaring he'd return for his senior season because of "unfinished business."
• If USC finishes the season ranked #20 or lower this year's Trojan team could be labeled the most over-rated team in college football history, with no other team ever being ranked pre-season #1 to finish the season ranked #20 or below.
• A controversy is brewing over the practice of the USC drum major stabbing the UCLA logo in the middle of the Rose Bowl field with his sword before the game. UCLA told USC not to do it in the game two years ago, but USC ignored the warning and did it anyway. This year, UCLA has instituted repercussions: if the drum major does it, the USC band will be restrained by security from taking the field at halftime for its show.
• USC's football program is in the middle of NCAA sanctions. This is the first season in three that USC will be able to participate in a bowl game or the Pac-12 Championship, with the NCAA banning it from post-season for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. It had to vacate all victories starting December 2004 and running through the 2005 season, including the 2005 national championship. It will lose a total of 30 scholarships over the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons.
• Both UCLA and USC will wear their home jerseys Saturday. The two teams returned to the tradition in 2008, after 25 years of being disallowed to do it by the NCAA.
• With UCLA head coach Jim Mora having 8 wins this season, only on coach has captured more wins in his first season at UCLA -- Terry Donahue with 9 wins in 1976; Tommy Prothro also had eight in 1965.
• Mora's mother attended USC.
• Saturday's weather forecast calls for a high in the low 70s and partly cloudy.
USC'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
USC's offense is certainly a dangerous, high-powered one. What's a little curious, though, is that it seemingly looks better than being ranked #27 in the country and averaging 462 yards per game. UCLA's offense is 13th in the nation, averaging 496 yards per game, but without knowing the statistics and having watched both offenses a number of times you'd say that USC's is more potent.
Anyone could think that by watching the big plays USC's offense can reel off because of its scary wide receivers, but there are times when the Trojan's offense has sputtered a bit, and most observers cite the running game as the reason.
In watching USC's offense, however, you get the impression that its rushing attack is, actually, pretty good. It's averaging 5.1 yards per carry (UCLA's averages 4.7), but perhaps it gets some blame because it's averaging 159 yards per game, which puts it 7th in the Pac-12 (UCLA is 3rd, averaging 210/game). USC simply just doesn't run the ball as much, it's running game responsible for just 43% of its offense.
Many observers, too, believe that USC's rushing game is better when senior tailback Curtis McNeal (5-7, 190) is the primary ball carrier, and that happened last week against Arizona State. The starter, Penn State junior transfer Silas Redd (5-10, 200), sat out the game due to an undisclosed injury and it's undetermined whether he'll play Saturday. He's practiced, but not 100%, so far this week. Regardless, McNeal is a handful to contain, using his size to make him difficult to find around the line of scrimmage and with some good explosion. He had a season-high 163 yards against ASU, two touchdowns on the ground while scoring another on a screen pass, and was the offense's workhorse, carrying the ball 31 times. Sophomore D.J. Morgan (5-10, 190) gets a handful of carries per game, but isn't nearly as explosive as McNeal or Redd. Freshman fullback Soma Vainuku (6-0, 250) doesn't touch the ball much, used almost entirely as a blocking back when USC's offense is lined up in its pro-style.
USC's offense, of course, is all about sophomore receiver Marqise Lee (6-0, 195), who is almost certainly the best at his position in the nation.
You know Lee is exceptionally good when probably one of the top 10 receivers in the country, junior Robert Woods (6-1, 190), is making his biggest impact by blocking downfield for Lee. Woods, though, in USC's pass-first attack, is still having an exception season, even though it's completely over-shadowed by Lee. He is 6th in the conference in receptions per game (6.1) and 9th in receiving yards (65). His signature play is the inside receiver screen. Last week, though, Woods touched the ball just two times, as the USC offense has become the Marqise Lee Show.
If that's not enough, USC has a future pro at tight end in sophomore Xavier Grimble (6-5, 260), who is a distant third in receptions on the team. He's a great athlete and USC likes to get him the ball on underneath routes, matched up against nickel backs. Freshman receiver Nelson Agholor (6-1, 180) has been getting more balls thrown his way in recent weeks, which is smart since so many defenses have been keying on Lee, and Woods. USC doesn't throw to its running backs much, so that screen pass for a touchdown to NcNeal was kind of a new wrinkle.
All of this is dependent on senior quarterback Matt Barkley (6-2, 230). Barkley, who decided to hold off the NFL draft a year ago to come back for his senior season and got all the pre-season Heisman hype, has shown some chinks in the armor in 2012 (and probably lost millions in his draft stock). Barkley, by all means, is an excellent quarterback, capable of making an incredible throw at any given time. He's always been, though, limited as an athlete, and opposing teams are doing everything they can to get him to have to move out of the pocket. This season, too, he's curiously shown a penchant for some bad decisions. Last week, he threw a swing pass -- to a Sun Devil. The ASU defender jumped the route so early everyone in the Coliseum saw him -- everyone apparently but Barkley. But make no mistake, Barkley is always capable of slicing up a defense, just like he did last season against UCLA (423 yards, six touchdowns).
USC's offensive line has been a bit of a mixed bag this season. They actually have been very good at pass protection, allowing just 14 sacks, which is tied for first in the Pac-12. They've also, at times, been solid in run blocking. It's just the consistency that's been a question. They're led by senior center Khaled Holmes (6-4, 305), who is considered an All-American candidate and solid NFL prospect. They had to replace All-American left tackle Matt Kalil from a season ago, and the first choice, sophomore Aundrey Walker (6-6, 300), started the first seven games of the season, to mixed reviews. For the last three games, true freshman Max Tuerk (6-6, 285) has taken on the assignment, and the reviews have generally been good, or at least better. Walker, though, still gets about a third of the snaps. USC also alternates sophomore Marcus Martin (6-3, 325) and senior Abe Markowitz (6-1, 310) at left guard, probably because it's the weakest spot on their OL. Markowitz has the experience, but he gets beat pretty badly on occasion. ASU's Will Sutton had his way with him last week.
UCLA's defense has been up and down the last two weeks, turning in their best performance of the season against Arizona two weeks ago, and then perhaps one of its worst against Washington State last week.
UCLA's secondary is the weak link. Cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price have struggled for the most part this season against teams with fast receivers, and the safeties haven't been much better.
UCLA's linebackers, however, have consistently improved throughout the season, with middle linebacker Eric Kendricks really settling in and coming into his own. He's made 45 tackles in the last three games, leading the conference in tackles (102, 10.2 per game) while hobbling around a bit.
Defensive linemen Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh have had big seasons, collecting 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks between the two of them.
There are some really interesting individual match-ups in this one. Anthony Barr, who will be probably one of the few best athletes on the field Saturday, will be matched up against USC's freshman left tackle Tuerk. You would think USC's coaches are looking at tape of Barr and cringing.
Along those same lines, you'd have to think that UCLA's coaches are watching tape of Lee and twitching. The match-up of Lee against either one of UCLA's corners is scary. Heck, the match-up of Lee against UCLA's entire secondary is the stuff of a horror movie. He's the quintessential receiver who has given UCLA's secondary fits all season, and he's the best in the country.
How does UCLA limit USC's passing game?
First, get pressure on Barkley. He has clearly shown some weakness in decision-making this season, especially when he's under pressure. UCLA probably won't be able to do that against USC's solid offensive line with just a four-man rush. It might try it initially, but it's going to have to send some extra guys. USC's line has shown susceptibility to blitzes and stunts. The problem is, when you do that, you're putting the corners on an island against Lee, Woods, etc. Perhaps UCLA should get a little risky in this one: Send the bodies on Barkley, press the receivers early, since that's what UCLA's corners do best because of their size, and then hope, more often than not, Barkley doesn't have time to find Lee and Co. downfield behind UCLA's secondary. Oh, yeah, it's going to happen a few times in this game. It's happened in every game USC has played this season. Trying to keep Lee in front of you is a fool's game. He's going to get loose no matter what. The way to stop him is to get to Barkley.
But here's another thing to consider: You'd rather blitz and potentially hit the home run on sacks and turnovers, if the downside is USC's offense striking fast. Take the fast strike; it gives the ball back to your offense. This game is going to be about which offense can dominate the game, and if UCLA's offense can control the ball it can keep USC's offense off the field. UCLA should gamble, try to get to Barkley, try to disrupt Lee at the line of scrimmage, and risk pass interceptions (you'd rather lose 15 yards than let him get loose behind you).
USC's offense, too, is fairly predictable. It uses both a pro-style set with Barkley under center, and then a spread look, and it's not that difficult to predict what USC is going to do out of both sets. ASU's defense was doing pretty well in sniffing out plays last week until it simply got gassed in the second half -- since it was on the field far too much. What you don't want is a tired UCLA defense on the field a majority of the minutes in the second half trying to chase down Lee and NcNeal.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. USC'S DEFENSE
This is not the vaunted USC defense of old. It's ranked 58th in the nation, allowing an average of 390 yards per game. It's plainly been what has caused USC to lose three games so far this season and get knocked out of the national championship equation.
Look at it this way: USC's defense is allowing 148 rushing yards per game; UCLA's defense is allowing 144. USC is allowing 242 passing yards per game; UCLA is allowing 266.
Essentially, UCLA's offense is playing against a defense about as good as its own.
USC runs a very traditional 4-3, and very, very rarely does it go to a nickel. Up front it runs a very standard four-man defensive line, without much variation in terms of zone blitzes, etc. They are quick off the snap and good at putting pressure on the quarterback, fourth in the conference in sacks (37 on the season, behind UCLA at 39) but definitely have their weaknesses.
In the middle are sophomore nose tackle George Uko (6-3, 275) and true freshman Leonard Williams (6-5, 270).
|Defensive End Morgan Breslin.|
The trio of USC's sophomore linebackers are on the smaller, but quicker side. Will linebacker Hayes Pullard (6-1, 235) is having a good season, showing quick pursuit to the ball, and being good dropping into coverage. Sophomore strongsider Dion Bailey (6-0, 210) has the size of a safety but hits like a linebacker. Sophomore middle linebacker Lamar Dawson (6-2, 235) was pretty much embarrassed against Oregon two weeks ago but bounced back and had a good performance last week against ASU. They're similar to USC's two interior DLs -- talented but young and inexperienced.
USC's secondary has had the same type of season as UCLA's secondary -- very inconsistent. Last week against ASU they actually did well, allowing just 179 yards passing, but a great deal of that was due to the pressure USC's pass rush put on ASU quarter Taylor Kelly. Junior cornerback Nickell Robey (5-8, 165) is a good cover corner, who plays bigger than his size. USC has tried all season to find someone to step up into the other corner spot. Sophomore Josh Shaw (6-1, 190) is the latest, and he's struggled some. Offenses have tended to pick on whomever is opposite Robey. Senior safety T.J. McDonald (6-3, 205) gets a good deal of hype, and he leads the team with 83 tackles. Senior Jawanza Starling (6-1, 200) has had some inconsistent moments. The scouting report on USC's seconary is throw away from Robey and, if your quarterback can get time, your receivers will have room to get open.
UCLA's offense has had a very good season, mostly because of the emergence of quarterback Brett Hundley. As a redshirt freshman he has been nothing short of phenomenal, making very few mistakes and very few bad throws over the course of a season, especially if you consider it's his first year playing college football. He has continued to improve, too, making fewer mistakes
If you're talking big seasons, senior tailback Johnathan Franklin's is going down in the record books -- literally -- setting the all-time career rushing mark at UCLA this season. Despite a setback last week against Washington State running in 22-degree weather, Franklin has been explosive, elusive and difficult to bring down, and easily one of the best running backs in the country. UCLA will get back tailback Damien Thigpen this week after missing last week due to an injury. He was missed in Pullman, with UCLA cleary missing him as explosive option running the ball or catching it out of the backfield.
UCLA will also get a personnel boost among its receivers, with Devin Lucien returning early from a broken collar bone, and Darius Bell now back to full strength. Stepping up in the void has been true freshman Jordan Payton, who has shown an ability to catch the ball in traffic and get behind the defense despite not having burner speed. Y receiver Joseph Fauria has started to deliver on his promise, being the key receiver for UCLA's offense in recent weeks.
UCLA's offensive line is coming off a fairly poor performance against WSU in Pullman but we'll chalk that up to, again, playing in adverse conditions.
UCLA's offense has some clear elements in this match-up it can exploit.
UCLA's three interior linemen, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Jake Brendel and Jeff Baca, are its three best OL, and have pretty much dominated DLs this season. You have to think they'll be able to plow through USC's interior OL.
USC's secondary has struggled against bigger receivers, like last week against ASU's tight end Chris Coyle. You have to think they'll have a difficult time trying to handle Fauria.
USC has struggled against mobile, running quarterbacks, like it did last week in trying to contain USC's Taylor Kelly. You have to think they'll struggle containing Hundley and his ability to create with his feet.
USC has looked befuddled against a zone read, so you have to think UCLA will use it extensively.
USC's defense has been particularly susceptible to offenses that use a fast tempo, getting worn down and losing their fundamentals, being such a young defense.
UCLA's challenge is going to be containing USC"s pass rush, and picking up all the stunts and twists. Watch to see how UCLA's true freshman right tackle fares against Breslin. What USC did in the second half to limit ASU last week was put more pressure on the line of scrimmage, limiting USC's running game and putting more pressure on the ASU QB, and it worked. UCLA will need to go horizontal, getting the ball in the hands of its skill guys away from the pressure of the line of scrimmage, which is a basic tenet of UCLA's offense. If UCLA can render USC's pass rush fairly ineffective and use its over-pursuit at the line of scrimmage against them, the Bruins should be able to move the ball pretty easily.
Last year, UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was at ASU, and he put up 36 points on USC's defense. With more talent at UCLA, and USC's defense being just about the same -- if not a little worse -- than last season, you have to think UCLA is going to put up some points.
Like we said above, UCLA is going to want to keep its offense on the field, play at a quick tempo, wear down USC's defense, consistently move chains and keep the ball out of the hands of USC's offense and Lee.
USC'S special teams are generally decent. Their kicking game is passable, with field goal kicker Andre Heidari perfect from 40 yards and in. Generally if USC has a field goal that is 45 yards or longer they'll go for it on fourth down. Punter Kyle Negrete is solid, averaging 44 yards per punt.
Lee returns kicks, and has returned one for a touchdown this season. Robey and Woods both return punts, and Robey has looked dangerous.
UCLA's punter Jeff Locke is always a factor in the game, with his ability to pooch a punt within the 20, and make all kick-offs touchbacks, which renders Lee's kick-off returning ability moot.
Everything points to this being a shoot-out, with two great offenses going up against two mediocre defenses.
You can probably expect the most highly-penalized game in the history of college football. UCLA and USC are #1 and #2 in the nation foe most penalties, playing in the penalty-happy Pac-12. Penalties could be such a huge factor that whichever teams stays below 100 penalty yards could have a considerable advantage.
Both UCLA and USC aren't bad in terms of turnovers, but USC has been turnover-prone as of late, as Barkley has been throwing a good amount of interceptions.
While this is a pretty even match-up, though, on the field you have to give a slight advantage to the Trojans, merely because of Lee. He is a complete difference-maker, playing at a level that makes him look like an NFL All-Pro playing against Pop Warner players.
In terms of intangibles, perhaps the edge goes to the Bruins. They are surging in their newly-born program, under a coach that has inspired them, and has gotten them all to buy in. In other words, he's not the only one who cares. USC, on the other hand, is playing mostly for pride and has to have some residual emotional fallout from a season in which they vastly under-performed compared to expectations. UCLA is ecstatic to be playing for the Pac-12 South Championship, while the Trojans probably aren't nearly as excited. At home in the Rose Bowl, in front of an inspired Bruin crowd that perceives there's a chance to win the rivalry game this season, the emotional side of the game goes to UCLA.
If UCLA wins, we can officially say the corner has been turned.
USC is probably the slightly better team, merely because of Lee. Take him out of the equation and it's pretty easy to call a UCLA win. But unless he gets a horrible case of whooping cough before the game he's a factor that just can't be minimized. So, the call should really go to the Trojans, but we're going to go with the Bruins.
This way I get the reverse mojo of really picking USC, but all of the love for the homer call.