• USC will drive about 14 miles to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA in the annual, crosstown rivalry game Saturday, at 5:00 p.m., with the game televised by ABC.
• UCLA is ranked #9 in the only ranking that matters, the College Football Playoff Rankings, while USC is ranked #19.
• The Bruins are 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12, while USC is 7-3 and 6-2.
• In fact, USC is currently atop the Pac-12 South standings by ½ game over UCLA.
• It is the 84th meeting between the two schools, with the series dating back to 1929. USC leads the series, 44-30-7, with two games (2004 and 2005) vacated due to USC’s NCAA penalties. For the last 34 years (since 1980) the series has been very even with USC holding the edge of 17-16-1, but if you don’t count those two vacated games, UCLA leads 16-15-1.
• UCLA has the longest winning streak in the series, beating USC 8 straight times from 1991 to 1998. USC responded by beating UCLA 7 straight times, from 1999 to 2005. But, of course, if you don’t count the two vacated games, it would only be five straight Trojan wins.
• Of course, UCLA Head Coach Jim Mora hasn’t lost to USC, beating the Trojans in his first two seasons.
• Last year, UCLA beat the Trojan at the Coliseum, 35-14, and the last time the game was played in the Rose Bowl, in 2012, UCLA won 38-28.
• UCLA and USC have both been nationally ranked in three straight meetings, the first time since 1980-1982.
• In games played at the Rose Bowl, UCLA leads 9-7.
• If UCLA wins Saturday, it will be the first time in school history the Bruins won 9 games three seasons in a row.
• UCLA’s ranking is its highest on or after November 16th since Dec. 3, 2005.
• By the time the regular season is over, UCLA will have the toughest schedule in the nation, according to ESPN.
• UCLA and USC are the second closest Big Five schools in terms of miles. UCLA and USC are 12.3 miles apart, while Duke (In Durham, N.C.) and North Carolina (in Chapel Hill) are 8.6. Only UCLA and USC share the same city, however.
• The proximity of the two campuses, with thousands of alumni sharing the same city, makes the UCLA/USC rivalry one of the most intense in the nation. The fact that UCLA and USC are quite different philosophically and idealogically also fuels the fire.
• UCLA, USC and Notre Dame are the only FBS schools to have never played a FCS school in football.
• On the day of the first game between the two schools, September 28, 1929, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Braven Dyer predicted, "In years to come, this game will probably be one of the football spectacles of the West."
• The Victory Bell, of course, goes to the winner of the UCLA/USC game. It was originally from an old Southern Pacific train and was given to the UCLA student body in 1939. It was then stolen by a USC organization and hidden for a year, until the two schools decided to award the Bell to the winner of the rivalry game. The metal mounting around the bell is painted the color of the school that owns it for that year.
• USC is coached by Steve Sarkisian, in his first year leading the Trojans. “Sark” (40) previously was the head coach at Washington for five seasons, where he had an overall 34-29 record, and was 24-21 in the conference. He went three seasons in a row – 2010 to 2012 – in which he won 7 games, and earned the moniker from UCLA fans as “Seven-Win Sark.” Before that he was the quarterbacks coach at USC for two different stints in the 2000s, with a year at the Oakland Raiders in between. Sarkisian is known to be a very good recruiter, but has yet to prove himself as a reputable head coach overall. He traditionally ran more of a pro-style offense, but has gone to a version of the spread during his last year at Washington and this year at USC. Observers in Washington thought that Sarkisian might be on the hot seat in Seattle – before USC Athletic Director hired him to replace his former colleague, Lane Kiffin, as USC’s Head Coach last December.
• At Washington, Sarkisian never beat a ranked team in November, going 0-4 in his five years there. In fact, at Washington, Sark was 1-12 when facing ranked teams in October and November.
• Mora and Sarkisian are friendly, and sometimes text each other, even during the season.
• Some of the best UCLA/USC week pranks:
-- In 1958, UCLA students rented a helicopter and dropped 500 pounds of manure on the Tommy Trojan statue.
-- USC students once let loose 20,000 red-and-yellow crickets in Powell Library.
-- UCLA students with a blowtorch cut off the sword of the Tommy Trojan statue and moved it to what would be an uncomfortable position.
• This year, USC students got to the Bruin bear statue early, spraying it with a little red paint last week, before the statue was covered.
• The SoCal BMW Crosstown Cup is awarded to the school that accumulates the most points in various head-to-head UCLA/USC match-ups in a school year. UCLA currently leads this year’s scoring, 25-10, and the winner of Saturday’s game will be awarded 10 points.
• UCLA and USC are #1 and #3 in all-time NCAA Championships. UCLA has 111, and USC has 100.
• UCLA is favored by 3.5 points.
• The weather forecast calls for a high of 71 degrees and partly cloudy skies Saturday. During the game the temperature should be in the high 50s to low 60s.
USC’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
The USC offense, along with the rest of the team, underwent a major overhaul in the offseason with the addition of new head coach Steve Sarkisian. Under previous head coach Lane Kiffin and then interim head coach Ed Orgeron, USC had clung to a ball-control offense designed to work the clock and generate long drives thanks to a dynamic running game. With Sarkisian’s arrival, though, the Trojans moved toward more of the spread-type, up-tempo scheme that Sarkisian had used during his final year at Washington. The personnel so far this year hasn’t allowed USC to go up-tempo as much as it would like, seemingly, but it does appear that Sarkisian would like that sort of offense to be USC’s identity going forward.
This year, though, in a bit of a philosophical inconsistency, USC hasn’t been an up-tempo team. The Trojans’ opener against Fresno State showed off an explosive, up-tempo offense, but since then, the USC scheme has seemingly gotten progressively slower. They don’t typically huddle, so there’s that, but it isn’t an overly quick offense from play to play. It’s mostly a spread scheme, with three or four wide receivers in the formation the vast majority of the time and the quarterback almost always lining up in the shotgun, but they will run some pro-style sets as well. The Trojans run a bit more than they pass, though they’ve trended more toward the pass in the last two games. Generally, it’s a pretty effective offense, with 5.9 yards per play, but more of the big play success has come through the air (where the Trojans have 8.5 yards per pass play) than on the ground (where the Trojans earn just four yards per carry).
The passing offense has been effective in no small part due to the high-level play of redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler (6'1, 210). The two-year starter has put together one of the most statistically impressive seasons for a quarterback in college football this year, throwing for nearly 3000 yards, 29 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. As his interception rate would indicate, he typically makes very good decisions with the football, very rarely opting to throw into coverage. He has a good arm — not an absolute cannon, but enough to make most every throw he needs to make. What sets him apart is his excellent decision-making and good pocket presence. He hasn’t shown a propensity to get rattled this season, and he has had to deal with some pressure (22 sacks this year). If there’s a knock on him, it’s that he doesn’t take as many chances downfield as he probably should given the talent USC has in its receiver corps. Sarkisian has said that he’d like Kessler to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities more downfield. He has seemed to try for more throws downfield of late, and has targeted one receiver in particular.
USC will also work the running backs into the passing game quite a bit, with starting redshirt junior running back Javorius “Buck” Allen (6'1, 220) the third-leading receiver on the team. Allen has good hands out of the backfield, which just adds to what is a pretty complete package at running back. He’s an explosive runner, with the potential to take any carry to the endzone. It does seem as though he has gotten worn down as the season has gone on, with two of his least efficient games running the ball coming in the last three. Against California last week, he was unable to get much of anything going, rushing for just 60 yards on 21 carries. As we said, part of it might simply be fatigue — he and sophomore Justin Davis (6'1, 195) are about the extent of the running back rotation. Davis has been solid this year, with good speed, but has had a few issues with fumbles. He returned this year from ankle surgery last season, and hasn’t seemed to be too hobbled.
The offensive line, like UCLA’s last year, has been full of true freshmen all year. Viane Talamaivao (6'3, 330), Damien Mama (6'5, 370), and Toa Lobendahn (6'3, 280) have all spent time starting this year, which should give you some idea of the ugly depth situation at USC. Currently, the line starts two true freshmen (Talamaivao and Lobendahn) along with one redshirt freshman in Khaliel Rodgers (6'3, 315), along with redshirt sophomore right tackle Zach Banner (6'9, 350) and junior Max Tuerk (6'6, 285) at center. Lobendahn has a good deal of talent, and looks like he’s going to be an integral part of USC’s line for years to come, but each of the true freshmen have had their ups and downs. As a whole, though, the line has done a pretty good job protecting Kessler, considering their youth. The issues have been more prevalent with run-blocking, where USC simply hasn’t produced as much as they’d like with a back as talented as Allen. It’s been a case of inconsistency: the line will occasionally open up big enough holes for Allen to have a huge gain, but more often, especially lately, the line has struggled consistently opening up lanes for medium gains. Part of it is the loss of left tackle Chad Wheeler, who tore his ACL last month. His injury forced Lobendahn from his natural guard spot to left tackle, and pushed Rodgers into the starting lineup. Senior Aundrey Walker (6'6, 315) also factors into the rotation, but it appears he is in the doghouse a bit with the new staff, and he’s been questioned on his overall toughness throughout the year. He did play well in spot duty over the last couple of games though.
UCLA’s defense has come on a bit over the last four games after putting together a rough start to the season. Much of the improvement is due to some scheme changes; UCLA spent much of the early part of the season using primarily a passive, coverage-based scheme that wasn’t particularly effective and led to some games that were closer than they should have been — Memphis, in particular — and helped contribute to losses to Oregon and Utah. Since the loss to Oregon, though, the scheme has become progressively more aggressive, with more frequent blitzing in addition to more frequent stunting of the defensive line to put pass rushers in more advantageous situations. UCLA has also elected to puts its corners in press coverage more, which has seemed to play more to the strengths of the individual players. In total, UCLA’s defense appears to be a much better unit than the group that started the season.
|Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenny Clark.|
The edge play has gotten better since the start of the season. UCLA has, more and more, elected to move Owamagbe Odighizuwa around the line, sometimes putting him inside, sometimes lining him up at end, and sometimes standing him up on the outside edge of the offensive tackle. It’s led to him having some of his best performances over the last few games, and finally giving UCLA a credible, consistent pass rush. Deon Hollins has also been used in better ways, with UCLA often stunting him inside to take advantage of his speed against the average interior lineman. It’s interesting — heading into the year, UCLA’s scheme seemed to be predicated on the assumption that UCLA would be able to get a pass rush playing straight up, with Odighizuwa and Hollins rushing from the same spots virtually every play, but once it became apparent that they weren’t able to, the coaching staff adjusted the scheme to be a bit more creative in using them. The addition of Takkarist McKinley, who should be ready to go after hurting his hamstring two weeks ago, has also helped, with McKinley providing some of that dynamic ability on the edge that UCLA has been missing with the losses of Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh.
Eric Kendricks has been probably the most consistent player on the defense this year, and it’s great to see him finally having a more or less healthy season, after being plagued with a variety of ailments each of the last two years. Kendricks was about the only thing saving the defense from being a bit of a disaster earlier in the year, but over the last few games, he’s been able to step back a bit from being the clean-up crew for every mistake thanks to the majority of the defense playing better. Myles Jack has been more consistent through the last five games than he was through the first five, and looks like he’s starting to grow as a player, playing with more discipline in the scheme, and actually showing off some decent pass rush ability, which wasn’t a strength of his heading into the year.
The secondary has really seen some improvement in the last two games, and a big part of that has been the improved play of cornerback Fabian Moreau. Moreau, like much of the team, came into the year with a good deal of hype and didn’t deliver through the first chunk of the season, looking like a good cover guy with zero ball skills or awareness. Seemingly every time a receiver got a big gain, it was Moreau right there in the frame missing the ball and receiver by inches. Through the last two games, he’s seemed to get more comfortable, and we can’t discount the idea that he’s just more comfortable playing press coverage rather than playing five to ten yards off the line of scrimmage. He’s making more plays on the ball, and just seems like a more confident player than he was earlier in the year. Freshman Jaleel Wadood has been another standout, playing beyond his years on the back line, and not making too many of the mistakes you’d expect from a true freshman playing such a critical role. Tahaan Goodman, the other safety, has made some strides, but regressed a bit against Washington, missing a few tackles and looking a little lost at times.
It’s become a better defense over the last few weeks, as evidenced by good performances against explosive offenses in Arizona and California. Continuing that play going forward will be critical to UCLA’s chances in the next two games and any chances UCLA has in the post-season.
We’ve seen a good deal of improvement from UCLA’s defense through the last few games, and if the unit that we saw against Cal and Arizona shows up on Saturday, the Bruins definitely have a chance to take this side of the matchup. But we can’t simply give it to UCLA because the Bruins have just been too inconsistent throughout the year to know exactly what to expect coming out of a bye week, and the USC offense has been good enough all year to cause UCLA some issues.
The USC offense is a good one; yes, it has some inconsistency from play to play due mostly to offensive line play, but it has some explosive threats the likes of which UCLA hasn’t faced much of this year. Agholor is one of the most explosive receivers in the country, and it’s going to be a real test of Moreau’s improvement to see how he does when matched up against players of Agholor and Smith’s caliber. Allen is one of the better running backs UCLA will have faced this year, and he also has the potential to break big runs at virtually any point.
UCLA, though, really hasn’t been prone to giving up huge plays this year, thanks in large part to playing two deep safeties much of the time. A critical piece against USC is whether or not the Bruins can generate pressure on Kessler. When the USC quarterback has time to sit back in the pocket and look downfield, he can be deadly. Putting him in uncomfortable situations can lead to dump-off throw after dump-off throw, which would be a win for the Bruins.
It’s going to be difficult for UCLA’s to dominate USC to the point where the Trojans don’t have any big plays; likewise, we haven’t seen the overall consistency from USC’s offense against a talented defense to expect that the Trojans will be able to consistently drive on the Bruins. While there’s a chance, given the overall wild nature of the Pac-12 and these two teams this year, that either could dominate this side of the game, we’d have to imagine any real separation will come on the other side.
USC’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
The changes in coaching staff also brought some significant changes on the defensive side of the ball. In came Justin Wilcox, the high-priced defensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian hired at Washington; out went Clancy Pendergast, the well-respected coordinator hired by Lane Kiffin. The scheme changes have been pretty significant; where Pendergast based much of his defense on pressure, Wilcox has been much more inclined to play a coverage-based scheme this year, very rarely rushing more than four players.
Even with that change in philosophy, though, the results have been pretty good. USC has one of the better defenses in the conference, and is giving up an average of five yards per play (34th in the country), an average of four yards per rush (42nd in the country), and an average of 6.1 yards per pass attempt (23rd in the country). The scheme is, like Washington, one that is ostensibly a 3-4 but functions mostly like a 4-3, with one of the linebackers functioning more as a rush end than anything (again, think UCLA’s defense last year with Anthony Barr). Wilcox showed a little bit more liveliness with blitzing last week against California, but generally this year, the Trojans have been among the teams least likely to blitz in the country. Since teams have had some success against Brett Hundley by playing coverage against him, we’d have to imagine Wilcox will opt mostly for that style of defense this week.
Much of the pass rush has also come from the edges of the line. At the rush end position, senior J.R. Tavai (6'2, 250) and sophomore Scott Felix (6'2, 230) have both played a significant number of snaps, and they’ve combined for five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. Tavai made his way back to practice this week for the first time since spraining his knee against Utah in October, and the thinking is that he’ll be ready to go this weekend. Both Felix and Tavai are good, strong athletes who can cause problems for offensive tackles.
When USC does blitz, it’ll more often than not be with sophomore outside linebacker Su’a Cravens (6'1, 225). Cravens, a converted safety, has looked incredibly dynamic playing in the box as a linebacker. He has great quickness and speed, allowing him to cover running backs out of the backfield as well as rush the passer. Despite USC’s lack of pressure, Cravens actually leads the team in tackles for loss at 14, and has five sacks of his own. The linebacker corps in general is a very athletic group. Senior middle linebacker Hayes Pullard (6'1, 235), who has been at USC since 2004, is essentially the Eric Kendricks of the Trojans, doing a little bit of everything for them. He is the leading tackler, but will also cover receivers from time to time, and very, very occasionally come on a blitz. Junior Anthony Sarao (6'0, 220) is another good athlete who plays pretty well in space. If there’s a knock on the group, it’s that it’s a bit undersized, and the depth isn’t great behind them, with sophomore Michael Hutchings (6'1, 210) and sophomore Quinton Powell (6'2, 200) being the next most-trusted of the group.
The secondary has been up and down this year, as would be expected when the already thin unit was hit by the Josh Shaw suspension news to start the year. Additionally, the lack of pressure up front has put much of the onus on the secondary to hold up against the pass. So, there have been some breakdowns, most notably on the Hail Mary against Arizona State. That said, there is some very, very good talent in the group, starting with freshman cornerback Adoree Jackson (5'11, 185). Jackson, who plays some on offense, already looks like he might be one of the top few cornerbacks in the entire conference. He has natural instincts for the position, and has the speed and recovery ability to stay with most receivers. On the other side, junior Kevon Seymour (6'0, 185) is also a pretty good athlete, but tends to get a little too handsy in coverage, which leads to some pass interference calls. He has also made some poor decisions at times, going for interceptions at inopportune times. The safeties haven’t been consistent, with the triumvirate of senior Gerald Bowman (6'0, 205), sophomore Leon McQuay (6'1, 185), and freshman John Plattenburg (5'11, 180) struggling at times playing their assignments. Plattenburg has pushed both Bowman and McQuay more and more, and he may get the start on Saturday. A quarterback given a decent amount of time can tear into that secondary, which is why it could be critical for Shaw to make it back this week. While he’s probably not quite in football shape, Shaw’s return would probably take some pressure off the depleted secondary, and he has the versatility to play both safety and cornerback.
UCLA’s offense did a very nice job two weeks ago against a good Washington defense, scoring 44 points and putting up solid yardage numbers against what had been a pretty stingy defense. Much of the charge was led by Brett Hundley, who played very well after scuffling through the middle part of the season. Hundley seemed to go through his progressions, kept his eyes downfield in the face of the pass rush, and delivered the ball accurately. When Hundley is seeing the field well, as he was two Saturdays ago, it makes UCLA very tough to defend. The previous week, against Arizona, Hundley ran the ball 24 times, but against Washington, Hundley ran the ball just seven times, and the offense, as a whole, performed much better.
Some of the pressure this year has fallen off Hundley thanks to the emergence of Paul Perkins and the UCLA running game. Perkins is leading the Pac-12 in yards per carry, and he’s been remarkably consistent from game to game and play to play. He’s had just one game this year (against Arizona) where he’s averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry, and that was also the only game where he had fewer than 80 yards rushing. He’s also been a solid receiving threat out of the backfield with 24 catches for nearly 200 yards, and has increasingly become an outlet for Brett Hundley in the face of pressure. Perkins has been spelled by Nate Starks and Jordon James, both of whom have provided nice contributions this year.
The offensive line, as we’ve noted in the last few weeks, has improved a great deal since the beginning of the year. Ever since Conor McDermott began to start in place of Malcolm Bunche at left tackle, the line has steadied, with McDermott providing more athleticism on the edge, which has given Hundley more time to work and the running backs a safer lane off left tackle. Last week, Alex Redmond filled in for Bunche and did a nice job in his return from injury, to the point where we wouldn’t be shocked if Redmond held down the job for the remainder of the year, which could relegate Bunche to spot work. The line as a whole has improved its play at every position from the beginning of the year, with Scott Quessenberry actually going from the obvious worst interior lineman at the beginning of the year to likely the best through the last couple of games.
UCLA’s receiving corps got a boost against Washington when Thomas Duarte returned from injury. Though he’s not an excellent blocker like many of UCLA’s receivers, Duarte provides Hundley a real threat over the middle, which stretches the defense and gives the entire offense more room to work. The receivers have been solid, in general, all year, which is about what was expected of them coming into the year.
Statistically, it looks like an even fight between these two sides of the ball, maybe even slightly tilted in favor of the Trojans. But when looking at the different matchups, it’s hard to see how USC will be able to effectively defend the multi-faceted UCLA offense.
To start, the one true running quarterback USC faced all year, Tyler Murphy of Boston College, ran for an astounding 191 yards on 13 carries against the Trojans. USC had virtually no answer for him, and Brett Hundley, while not as prolific with his legs as Murphy, is a more than effective runner who caused the Trojans grief last year with his ability to extend plays and scramble. It’s expected that USC will spy Hundley with Cravens or Pullard, and try to force him to stay in the pocket, but that’ll require a good deal of discipline from the USC defense. Even then, Hundley has the athleticism and strength to beat defenders in one-on-one situations.
USC will most likely rely on containing Hundley, which mean they’re probably not going to want to blitz much, because that can open up running lanes. We’d have to guess they’ll rely mostly on pressure from their front four (including that rush end spot), so it’s going to be critical that UCLA’s offensive line play well. Again, though, the offensive line has been playing much better of late, and just got a nice tune-up for dealing with Williams by generally handling Washington lineman Danny Shelton.
The Bruins will likely try to use tempo to put pressure on USC’s depth, which isn’t great, and try to wear out the Trojan linebackers by short passes to the sidelines. We could see USC getting a few stops early, but as the game wears on, the Trojans will likely wear down which could lead to a big offensive second half for UCLA.
This may sound like blasphemy, and we’re sorry Ishmael Adams (and Kaelin Clay, really), but the combination of Nelson Agholor and Adoree Jackson has been the most dynamic return group in the conference this year. The two have combined for three touchdowns, with Agholor returning two punts and Jackson returning a kickoff. Jackson has been the more impressive of the two, averaging nearly 30 yards per kickoff return, while Agholor has averaged 13.1 yards per punt return. Both have great speed and elusiveness in the open field.
USC’s kicking game has been fairly solid. Senior Andre Heidari (5'11, 220) has missed a couple of makeable field goals (a 36 yarder against Oregon State and a 39 yarder against Fresno State) but has been very good otherwise. He’s hit two 50+ yard kicks this year, but USC really hasn’t kicked too much, with Heidari only having ten field goal attempts this year. In the punting game, junior Kris Albarado (5'10, 200) has been nothing spectacular, but he’s punted the ball 46 times with just four touchbacks for a 41.6 yard average.
UCLA’s return game was so good at the beginning of the year that teams have almost entirely stopped kicking to Ishmael Adams. He said, and we agree, that this week USC will likely kick to him, since it’s a rivalry and they’re likely confident in their special teams. Adams is a dynamic return man, with very good vision and acceleration.
Ka’imi Fairbairn had a great game against Washington, nailing all three of his field goal attempts as well as all five of his extra points. He may never be a wholly consistent kicker, but hopefully he stays on this hot streak for a while. Matt Mengel has done well this year for a stopgap option at punter, and he’s come on a bit more over the last five or six games, kicking the ball with more consistency.
This is a huge game for both teams, and it’s hard to really assess who has more pressure coming into it. Is it USC, losers of two straight in the rivalry who need the win to stay in contention in the Pac-12 South? Or is it UCLA, the No. 9 team in the country that has the Pac-12 South and a potential playoff berth riding on winning out the rest of the season? It’s difficult to say, but the stakes are incredibly high for both teams.
UCLA has had an unpredictable year, going from a team that looked like it’d be lucky to win eight games after the Oregon debacle to a team that now looks like it has a semi-reasonable chance of winning the Pac-12. The Bruins have made significant strides on both offense and defense since putting together poor showings to start the year, and against Arizona and Washington, UCLA fans got to see what the Bruins can look like when they start to put it together.
If UCLA can somehow put together the offensive performance it had against Washington and the defensive performance it had against Arizona in this coming game, we think the Bruins stand a chance of blowing out USC. The Trojans have done well beating up weaker opponents on the schedule, but USC has really struggled against mid-level teams and above, barely beating Stanford (thanks to some inexplicable choices by David Shaw), barely beating Arizona (thanks to a missed potentially game-winning field goal), losing to Arizona State, and losing to Utah. UCLA is very likely the best overall team that USC has faced this year.
It’s not a deep USC team, with some real thinness throughout the defense and along the offensive line. There is very good talent at quarterback, receiver, and running back, so we’d expect USC to hit a couple of big plays, but the lack of consistency on the offensive line could prevent USC from putting together long drives. The defense can be worn down by tempo, and if UCLA can attack the edges of the defense the way it did against a similar Washington defense, we could see the Bruins having a very effective day.
In the end, in large part due to the lack of really inspired coaching decisions from USC’s staff this year and the lack of depth and experience on the offensive line, we see Jim Mora and Brett Hundley notching a third straight win over USC, and staying alive in the playoff chase.