• The UCLA Bruins will travel 11 miles from Westwood to South Los Angeles to take on the USC Trojans at 5:00 PT Saturday.
• ABC will televise the game, with Sean McDonough, Chris Spielman and Shannon Spake calling the action.
• UCLA (8-3, 5-3) is ranked #22, while USC (9-3, 6-2) is ranked 23rd.
• The UCLA/USC Rivalry, arguably, is the best in college sports. In no other rivalry do two schools compete against each other in so many sports and at such an elite level. UCLA has won the most NCAA titles (109) and USC is third (98), and that combines for more titles than most other conferences.
• The only college rivalry consisting of two teams that are closer in proximity is the University of North Carolina and Duke, which are 10.5 miles from each other. The UCLA/USC rivalry is the only true football rivalry with two schools in the same city.
• With it being football fueled, so many fans and alumni having to interact with the city limits, and a basic difference in life philosophies (private school v. state school, etc.), the UCLA/USC rivalry could be considered the consistently most intense in college sports.
• The Victory Bell is the award given to the school that wins the annual game. The bell was originally UCLA's until it was stolen by a USC student organization in 1941, and then it was established in 1942 it would be given to the annual game's winner.
• It is the 83rd meeting between UCLA and USC in football, with USC currently leading the all-time football series, 44-29-7 (USC's wins in 2004 and 2005 have been vacated due to NCAA penalties). In the last 20 years, the rivarly has consisted of streaks, with UCLA winning 8 times (series record) from 1991 to 1998, and then USC winning 7 consecutive times (if you count the vacated wins) from 1999 to 2005. UCLA won in 2006, and then USC won five times in a row. Last season UCLA won in the Rose Bowl, in Jim Mora's first year, with a berth in the Pac-12 Championship game on the line, 38-28.
• UCLA has not beaten USC in the Coliseum since 1997 when Cade McNown led UCLA to a 34-17 win.
• The last time UCLA played USC in the Coliseum in 2011 it was Rick Neuheisel's last year and UCLA lost 50-0.
• It is the 22nd time UCLA has come into the game ranked higher than USC. UCLA is 12-9 and has won five of the last six meeting with USC when the Bruins were ranked higher. The series is even at 11-11-1 when both teams are ranked.
• When it is ranked by the AP, UCLA is 17-16-1 against USC.
• USC is led by interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who took over on September 29th after USC fired Lane Kiffin. With Orgeron at the helm, USC is 6-1 and playing well, with a signature win over #5 Stanford two weeks ago in the Coliseum. Orgeron was USC's defensive line coach under Pete Carroll until 2004 when he then took over the head coaching position at Ole Miss. In three seasons, he went 10-25 and was dismissed. He then spent one year as DL coach for the New Orleans Saints before joining Kiffin in Tennessee, and then following Kiffin to USC after one season in Knoxville. Turning around the Trojans this season, there has been some groundswell for Orgeron to be hired as USC's head coach permanently, but most insiders believe he's a secondary option for USC Athletic Director Pat Haden. The most consistently mentioned name at this point is Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin.
• In his post-practice interview Tuesday, UCLA Coach Jim Mora confided that he voted for Ed Orgeron as Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
• 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.
• Mora has 17 wins in his first two seasons, tying him for the most wins in the first two seasons as UCLA's head coach. Tomm Prothro won 17 games in his first two seasons of 1965 and 1966.
• Mora's mother attended USC.
• UCLA is 10-4 against Pac-12 South teams. The Bruins went 5-0 last season and are 3-1 so far this season.
• UCLA is 15-0 under Mora when leading the game at halftime.
• A UCLA school record 26 players have caught a pass in 2013. The record went back to 1954.
• UCLA set a new school record this season for most true freshmen playing in a season, 18. It matched a school record in the Colorado game for most true freshman starters, 7.
• UCLA has worn a No. 36 patch on its uniform all season to honor the memory of Nick Pasquale, a walk-on redshirt freshman receiver who passed away in a tragic accident September 8th.
• It is only the ninth time in the series that the game has been played at night. It is the 16th time the game has been played on Thanksgiving weekend.
• UCLA currently leads USC in the 2013 Crosstown Gauntlet competition, 15 to 2.5, with wins over the Trojans in women's soccer, men's water polo, and women's cross country, while USC has one win in women's volleyball.
• USC is currently a 4-point favorite.
• The weather forecast calls for a high of 75 on Saturday, with a game time temperature in the 60s. As of now, it is expected to rain Friday night but be clear by Saturday.
USC's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
This has been probably one of the more tumultuous and interesting seasons for USC in recent memory. First, the Trojans lost 10-7 to Washington State in their Pac-12 opener, which was just as horrible of a performance as it sounds. Then, two weeks later, USC was blown out by Arizona State, giving up 62 points. The bloodbath against the Sun Devils was enough to necessitate Lane Kiffin's firing, which may or may not have taken place immediately after Kiffin was pulled off the team bus at LAX on the return trip home. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was given the interim head coaching job, and his marching orders were likely to avoid any further embarrassments and keep the team intact for the next head coach.
Of course, instead of merely treading water, Orgeron has turned USC into one of the hottest teams in the country, currently riding a five game winning streak and having won six of the last seven. In the process, Orgeron has elevated his stature in the eyes of influential boosters and alumni, who may wish to see him permanently ensconced as the head coach.
What has largely driven the turnaround, aside from the pure culture change of removing the at-times toxic Kiffin, has been improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Through the early going of the season, USC was in the midst of a self-inflicted quarterback controversy, with Kiffin reluctant to name a starter between redshirt sophomore Max Wittek (6'4, 235) and redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler (6'1, 215). Then, with seemingly no confidence in either quarterback, Kiffin, who had a great deal of influence on play calling, spent the first
|Quarterback Cody Kessler.|
Over the last seven games, with Kiffin removed from the picture, offensive coordinator Clay Helton has been much more dynamic, with the offense actually looking a bit more like the pro-style USC offenses of old. Compared to the 62% run based offense under Kiffin, USC has run the ball at a 52% clip over the last seven games, and has mixed up the passing attack to generate more downfield throws. Quarterback Cody Kessler will never be confused with Peyton Manning, but Helton has done a nice job of putting him in position to succeed, whether by rolling him out of the pocket or by giving him easy opportunities on quick hitches and other quick passing plays. Despite running less, play action has been much more effective over the last seven games, likely due to a wider variety of play action looks.
Kessler has been a big part of the surge for USC's offense. Through the first five games, he had thrown six touchdowns against four interceptions, to go along with a 61% completion rate. Over the last seven, he's been much more effective, completing almost 66% of his passes, to go along with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. As we said above, much of the improvement is due to improved play calling by Helton now that Kiffin is gone, but you have to give Kessler some credit for improving his decision making. He doesn't have an exceptional arm, but he's improved his accuracy as the season has gone on, and has shown the ability to make tough throws into narrow windows. Helton will use him both under center and out of the shotgun depending on what they're trying to accomplish.
What's particularly astounding for Kessler is that he has improved so much despite not having junior All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee (6'0, 195) for much of the last seven games. Lee has been battling a variety of injuries since training camp and has been in and out of the lineup throughout the year. He was a significant contributor against Stanford, recording several key catches throughout the game, but then sat out last week against Colorado with a bruised shin. There is some speculation that Orgeron sat Lee last week to get him some added rest in order to face UCLA this weekend. The expectation is that, although Lee is listed as questionable, he will be ready to go for the game. In Lee's absence, sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor (6'0, 185) has stepped up as Kessler's primary target. Agholor is another dynamic receiver threat for the Trojans, who have seemingly had a steady string of them for the last dozen years or so. Agholor can stretch the field deep on the rare occasion that Kessler winds up for a deep bomb, but is also well-suited to shorter throws where he can use his athleticism to make guys miss.
Those two players alone account for a whopping 43% of USC's receptions. Redshirt junior tight ends Xavier Grimble (6'5, 250) and Randall Telfer (6'4, 250) are probably the next biggest threats as pure pass catchers, but really, when the Trojans aren't throwing to Lee or Agholor, they're generally trying to get the ball to one of their talented running backs, either through the air or on the ground. Redshirt sophomore running back Javorius Allen, or "Buck", (6'1, 215) began the season buried on the depth chart, but has emerged through the last four games as one of USC's best offensive weapons. He's averaging 6.5 yards per carry, but has also been a significant factor on screen passes and other looks out of the backfield, having 15 receptions, with 12 in the last four games. He has a good combination of power and speed, and has shown some home run capability. Redshirt sophomore running back Tre Madden (6'1, 220) made his return from injury against Stanford, but got just one carry against Colorado and doesn't appear to be all the way back from his hamstring troubles. Freshman Ty Isaac (6'3, 225) saw an increased load last week as well, but mostly in junk time. Senior Silas Redd (5'10, 200) has also battled a series of injuries, and is uncertain for the weekend.
One player who has seen his role massively increase under the new regime, particularly in recent weeks, is redshirt sophomore fullback Soma Vainuku (6'0, 265). After just two catches for 16 yards through the first five games, Helton has turned Vainuku into a weapon out of the backfield. He has managed gained 110 yards rushing/receiving over the last seven games on 12 touches, and has scored twice. Last week, he was actually used as a ball carrier, and had a 52 yard run to show for it.
The Trojans haven't necessarily been excellent along the offensive line, but USC has been able to scheme around some of their deficiencies up front by using quick passing and screens. The Trojans have been beset by injuries all season, with the lone bit of stability coming from junior center Marcus Martin (6'3, 310), who was, himself, a guard last season. Starting redshirt senior tackle Kevin Graf (6'6, 295) injured his ankle against Utah and missed several games, but has since returned. In Graf's absence, sophomore Max Tuerk (6'6, 285) got some time at right tackle, but has since moved back to left guard. Redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler (6'7, 275) has spent most of his time at left tackle, and junior Aundray Walker (6'6, 300), since being inserted into the lineup, has maintained his spot at right guard, after spending most of last season at tackle. Orgeron has spent much of the season trying to find a combination that works, and the Trojans' hope is that the current iteration is good enough to hold up against UCLA's front seven.
UCLA's defense, after looking like a potentially elite unit through the middle chunk of the season, has faltered a bit in recent weeks, with Arizona, Washington, and Arizona State all being able to move the ball well at times against the Bruins. Last week, against the Sun Devils, UCLA gave up 35 first half points, although only 28 were really given up by the defense. Disconcertingly, the Bruins did a very poor job against the zone read, which they'd had a good deal of experience defending this season.
This weekend, the secondary is possibly going to be a question mark, with Fabian Moreau having stayed out of the majority of Saturday's game. Ishmael Adams helped take up the slack for the injured Moreau, though, doing everything for the Bruins: defending passes, stopping the run, and also returning kicks. Randall Goforth and Anthony Jefferson, who both play safety, also filled in at cornerback at times, and Goforth, in particular, looked like a natural corner.
UCLA's defensive line, a week after playing mostly nickel against Arizona State, should be back in full force this weekend against the pro-style sets of USC. That'll mean decidedly more of nose tackles Kenny Clark and Seali'I Epenesa, in addition to more Eddie Vanderdoes and Ellis McCarthy.
There are certainly some elements that point to this being a good matchup for the Bruins. First, UCLA's defensive coaches are very well-versed in defending against pro-style offenses, having spent so long in the NFL. Between Lou Spanos and Jim Mora, the brains of the UCLA defensive staff could probably write a treatise on how to defend against an Ace formation. Second, playing against the pro-style gets more of UCLA's defensive linemen on the field than have been able to play against the spread looks from ASU, Washington, and Arizona. At this point of the season, with Vanderdoes, Clark, and McCarthy having matured considerably since the beginning of the year, that's a very good thing for UCLA.
The only similar offense UCLA has faced this year was Stanford, and the Bruins did a mostly excellent job of shutting down the Cardinal in the first half, before wearing down under the crushing weight of their own inert offense. While many could point to the lack of Myles Jack against Arizona State as a crucial loss for that game, against USC, we'd have to anticipate that he will play considerably on defense once again. Even without Jack, it'd be much easier to use an Aaron Wallace or Kenny Orjioke in his stead without much dropoff because UCLA wouldn't need to play as much nickel. So, even if UCLA opts for Jack primarily on offense again, you could see the move having much less of a negative effect on the defense. We'd have to expect, though, that Jack will play defense, at least somewhat, which will help to limit Cody Kessler's ability to move the pocket.
Against USC, we'd anticipate that UCLA will blitz quite a bit more than it has this year, both against the run and the pass. Kessler is not much of a running threat, and we'd guess that UCLA will look to disrupt his timing as much as possible by getting pressure on him. Stanford was able to stuff USC's rushing attack to a large extent throughout the game, and we'd have to anticipate UCLA will be focused on putting together a similar performance. The Bruins' speed at linebacker will likely be an important factor, particularly with Kendricks and Zumwalt, who'll be needed to deal with the heavy screen element that USC will likely use to counter the pressure. There, too, Jack will be key.
If UCLA isn't able to generate pressure, and Kessler is given time to throw, you have to worry about UCLA's depleted secondary and its ability to cover Agholor and Lee. They would be a difficult matchup for even a fully healthy secondary. In Anthony Barr's final regular season game as a Bruin, it's going to be key for him to go out with one of his best games.
UCLA's Offense vs. USC's Defense
Last season, the Trojans had an uncharacteristically poor defense under the past-his-prime Monte Kiffin. Running a Tampa Two defense that didn't do a good job of utilizing its personnel, USC gave up nearly 400 yards per game and struggled to stop the run. This offseason, Kiffin the Younger replaced Kiffin the Elder with Clancy Pendergast, an experienced coordinator who most recently held down the same position for California.
With Pendergast, USC has returned to form to a large extent. Running a 5-2 scheme that functions in a similar way to most 3-4 defenses, Pendergast has relied on his at-times dominant defensive front to generate a significant amount of pressure. The defense is predicated to a large extent on attacking the backfield—on outside runs and virtually any pass play that uses the width of the field, Pendergast teaches his defenders to get upfield as quickly as possible to generate big plays in the backfield. This can, on occasion, lead to missed tackles, but USC has shown enough team speed most of the year to compensate for errors. The Trojans average nearly 7 tackles for loss per game, which is third in the conference behind just Stanford and Arizona State, two teams UCLA struggled with.
The defensive front sets the tone for the entire defense, and like we said above, it's a very good one, likely better than the Arizona State front UCLA faced last week. The unit is led by sophomore Leonard Williams, who is already, in his young career, drawing praise as a potential first round draft pick after next season. In Pendergast's system, the defensive tackle is now ostensibly a defensive end, but he still plays effectively the same position. His combination of size, speed, and strength has caused real problems for opposing offensive lines all year, as evidenced by his 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. In terms of ability to get into the backfield as well as ability to stop the run, he's probably the best individual lineman that UCLA has faced this year.
The rest of the line can be equally dangerous. Nose tackle Antwaun Woods is a huge body that can eat up blockers. On the opposite side of Williams, George Uko is another talented end who has the ability to bull rush offensive guards and tackles. Those three will get the majority of snaps for USC when the Trojans are in their base formation.
Bookending the defensive line, and often acting as additional defensive linemen, are outside linebacker Devon Kennard and J.R. Tavai. Both are big enough to probably play true defensive end in a 4-3, with Kennard having a bit of that Anthony Barr-look to him. Kennard has had a special season, recording 11.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks from the rush end spot. He's been a tough cover for most offensive tackles this year, and we'd have to imagine that USC will try to line him up against Caleb Benenoch as much as possible. On the opposite side, Tavai has been solid this year, but has also been exposed at times by opposing team's rushing attacks.
Between the two, at the inside linebacker spots, USC will mostly use Hayes Pullard and Anthony Sarao. Both players are faster, quicker types than their outside counterparts and provide the speed to pursue ball carriers to the edge of the field. Pullard is thought by some to be a candidate to leave school early to pursue opportunities in the NFL.
|Safety Su'a Cravens.|
The stars of the secondary have probably been Dion Bailey and Su'a Cravens. Bailey has moved back to safety after playing much of the last two years at outside linebacker, and has generally excelled with the move back. He's leading the team in interceptions with 5, and is also one of USC's top four tacklers. Cravens has been very good as well, showing off his athletic ability at times en route to four interceptions. He, too, has some versatility, with the ability to drop into the box as additional run support. Demetrius Wright, who has seemingly been in the program forever, will also see significant time in the rotation.
For UCLA's offense, this season has been an odd one. To start the year, it looked as if the Bruins were poised to make a leap into becoming one of those elite offenses that can seemingly score at will, like Baylor or Oregon. Then, injuries mounted on the offensive line, Brett Hundley went into a slump, and the play calling became odd, at times, in an attempt to compensate for both issues.
Heading into this weekend, there's no panacea on the horizon for UCLA's offensive line. Simon Goines, who was the closest thing to a quick fix UCLA had available last week, broke his lower leg in the first half against ASU and will miss the remainder of the season. Without him, Xavier Su'a-Filo was forced to return to left tackle and Scott Quessenberry was forced back into the starting lineup at left guard. Against Will Sutton, that proved to be fairly devastating for UCLA's protection.
We've heard that the lack of confidence Hundley has in his blocking has led to many of his issues this year. Last week, it seemed as if he was unable to set his feet for huge portions of the game because he was constantly worried about the rush. There were several times where he took five to ten yard drops after catching the ball in the shotgun because the rush was coming so quickly up the middle. He had probably his worst game since Oregon this past week, and it's probably no coincidence that it came against the best defense he's faced since then.
Devin Lucien has come on in recent weeks as a receiving threat, and with Devin Fuller potentially out for this game after sitting out last week, Lucien could be huge against the Trojans. Between he and Shaquelle Evans, they may need to shoulder a huge load of the offense.
UCLA has struggled against every really good defense its faced this year, and, make no mistake, USC's defense is a really good one. The Trojans have a strong defensive line that's probably similar to Stanford's in terms of quality, but combines that with some of the speed elements of UCLA's defense when you move into the defensive backfield. As we said above, Leonard Williams might be the best lineman UCLA has faced all season. If there's one thing UCLA has going for it, the Trojans don't have much depth, so a fast tempo could wear them out.
The question is going to come down to how well Brett Hundley is able to deal with USC's pressure and how effective the game plan is with dealing with that pressure. It's a virtual guarantee that the Trojans will look to apply as much pressure on Hundley as possible, since that clearly has become the ideal game plan against the redshirt sophomore quarterback.
As Tracy posted after the game this past week, Hundley, at least at this stage in his career, is a known quantity. When he has time to throw, and isn't feeling the rush, he can be very effective. When he's faced with a rush, his eyes go down, he gets happy feet, and he looks to run instead of scanning the field. With that said, Noel Mazzone is going to have to do one of his best jobs of designing a scheme that hinges on quick passing, both to the sideline and over the middle, to force USC to keep more men in coverage. Many times this year, Mazzone has dealt with Hundley's issues by running the ball more, oftentimes into a stacked box , or by giving Hundley plays that require him to make presnap reads, which is an area where he's just not very good at this stage in his career. Against the Trojans, slow decision-making by Hundley could lead to another nine sack performance.
If UCLA had a healthy Goines, which would allow Su'a-Filo to move inside and help to counter the interior rush from USC, we might pick this a different way, but with UCLA's struggles on the interior, Hundley's struggles in the face of pressure, UCLA's running back situation being what it is, and Mazzone's lack of adjustments to compensate for his struggling quarterback, we just can't pick the Bruins to take this matchup.
In a lot of ways, we think this is lining up to be a close game, and in close games, special teams tend to count for a good deal. The good news for the Bruins is that, last week, UCLA discovered its once and future return man in Ishmael Adams. Adams had three excellent returns that set up scoring drives, and actually seemed poised to take one or two of his returns for touchdowns. He has good speed, but what set him apart last Saturday was his display of acceleration, vision, and balance, which at one point allowed him to take a full hit from a tackler, keep his feet, and run for an addition 30+ yards. We'd have to anticipate that he'll keep that job this week.
Of course, USC also has its dynamic return men in Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee. Agholor already has two punt returns for touchdowns this season, and averages over 20 yards per return. Lee is always dangerous, though he hasn't taken as many kicks as the season has gone on.
In the kicking game, both teams are a little shaky. Ka'imi Fairbairn was on a bit of a roll, but then missed two makeable field goals last week against Arizona State, the combined score of which might have tipped the game in favor of UCLA. Andre Heidari, who had a spectacular true freshman season, has dropped off a bit over the last two years. This year, he's missed seven of his 21 field goal attempts, and has also missed three PATs. He has range out to 50 yards, but he's just been a bit scattershot of late.
Kris Albarado doesn't have the strongest leg in the world, but has done a nice job, at times, of positioning his punts inside the opponents' 20. He has probably punted more than is typical for a Trojan punter, with 69 already this season. Sean Covington, for UCLA, has been a weapon as a punter at times, and has gotten more solid as the season has gone on.
In looking at the matchups for both teams, it's easy to see this being a defensive struggle. USC, with its strong defensive front and good speed throughout the defense, should be able to do a nice job of pressuring Hundley and forcing him to look a bit more like the guy who played against Oregon, Stanford, and ASU than the guy who tore up Nebraska in the third quarter. UCLA, on the other side, should be able to stop USC's mostly conventional running scheme, contain Cody Kessler to a pocket, and then hope to force him to make mistakes under pressure.
So, essentially, the prediction simply boils down to: which team will be able to eke out the most points? The Trojans probably have better weapons at the skill positions, and, at this stage of the season, probably have a better offensive line. On the other hand, even with his struggles, you'd be able to make a convincing argument that UCLA has the better quarterback. With all of UCLA's injuries, though, you might say that USC has a slightly more effective offense.
The game could also easily hinge on a long special teams return, or a key turnover, or just one play that's made or not made. The fact that the game is in the Coliseum benefits the Trojans to a certain extent, since they haven't lost to UCLA there since 1997. In fact, there are many factors that might point to this one being a potential Trojan victory, with the amount of injuries UCLA has suffered, the location of the game, and the simple fact that neither team is playing for anything but pride, and the home team usually does well in those kinds of games.
But, screw that. We have to anticipate that UCLA is going to be fired up for this game a week after having the Pac-12 South slip through its fingers. We have to guess that Jim Mora and company realize how hugely important this game is not only for recruiting and pride, but for the program's momentum. We have to say that this will be the game, if there is one this season, where Brett Hundley puts it together and shows us his most complete game this year.
And we also have to say that there's no way we're picking Ed Orgeron to beat Mora in a big game.
We say UCLA breaks the Coliseum streak, matches last season's record, and heads into December and January recruiting with positive momentum to sell.