LB Jayon Brown and DE Takkarist McKinley (Photo by Steve Cheng)

Rivalry Week: UCLA vs. USC Full Preview

Nov. 17 -- UCLA faces a very tough test on Saturday against a USC team that is peaking at the right time, and looking like one of the elite teams in the country...

Facts and Factors

• UCLA will host crosstown rival USC Saturday at the Rose Bowl, with a kick-off time scheduled for 7:30 p.m. 

• The game will be televised by ESPN, with Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Todd McShay calling the action.

• UCLA is 4-6 overall, 2-5 in the Pac-12, and needs two more wins over USC and California in Berkeley Nov. 26th to be bowl eligible.

• USC is 7-3 and 6-2, ranked #15/#19, and is currently in second place in the Pac-12 South behind 6-1 Colorado. 

• The Trojans are coming off their biggest win of the season, knocking off a road upset of then-#4-ranked Washington last week. 

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• The Bruins trail in the all-time series, 45-31-7 (USC wins in 2004 and 2005 have been vacated due to NCAA penalties). 

• USC won last year's meeting in the Coliseum, 40-21, which ended a three-game UCLA win streak.  

• UCLA holds the longest win streak in the series, winning 8 straight games between 1991 and 1998. 

• In fact, in 1998, when UCLA had beaten USC eight times in a row, the series margin had really narrowed, with USC leading the all-time matchup at that time, 32-27-7. 

• In the last 50 seasons, a UCLA team with four wins or less has beaten a top-20-ranked USC one time, in 1994.

• Since UCLA made the move to the Rose Bowl in 1982, the Bruins are 10-7 at home against the Trojans. 

• This is the 10th anniversary of unranked UCLA’s upset win that knocked # 2 USC out of the BCS Championship Game, with UCLA prevailing at the Rose Bowl, 13-9. 

• In games when UCLA is unranked and USC is ranked, the Trojans lead 13-6-2. 

•  For UCLA Senior Day, UCLA will salute seniors and fourth-year players:  WR Ishmael Adams, DB Randall Goforth, LB Cameron Judge, DB Marcus Rios, DB Fabian Moreau, WR Kenneth Walker, TE Nate Iese, LB Jayon Brown, QB Mike Fafaul, DB Tahaan Goodman, DB Charles Dawson, DB Dylan Luther, P Adam Searl, FB Willie Green, LB Isaako Savaiinaea, DL Eddie Vanderdoes, DL Deon Hollins, OL Conor McDermott, DL Preston Awedisean, OL Christian Garcia, DL Thomas Schwab, DL Eli Ankou, DL Takkarist McKinley, DL Jake Jones.

• Clay Helton (44) is in his first year as the head coach at USC.  He took over the interim position last season after Steve Sarkisian was fired October 12th. He had the interim tag removed Nov. 30th, the Monday after USC beat UCLA last year, in what was considered a bit of a controversial move. A good portion of the USC community considered Helton not worthy of their program and that it was an act of opting for an easy, unproven hire, when names like Chip Kelly, Bob Stoops and even Pete Carroll were being thrown around at the time. Not counting Helton's two times as interim head coach at USC, it's his first stint as a head coach (He acted as USC's interim in 2013, also, when the preceding interim coach, Ed Orgeron, quit before the team’s bowl game).  Helton has already gone though many phases while being USC's head coach for less than a year; most USC fans were skeptical going into the season that the first-time head coach had the chops for the job, then he began the season 1-3 and there was a pretty sizeable faction of USC fans calling for his ouster, even during the season. Since stringing together six straight wins and his team looking good doing it, Helton has had gained some support from the USC community -- at least, for now. Of course, if he doesn't win a national championship in 2017, he'll probably be back on the hot seat.  Heck, he could be back on griddle if he loses to USC and Notre Dame over the next two weeks. 

Steve Cheng (BRO)

• UCLA and USC wear their home jerseys for the rivalry game.  The tradition was renewed in 2008 for the first time since 1982.  In the intervening years, an NCAA rule forbade both teams wearing home jerseys, until it was rescinding in 2009. In 2008, the two program defied the NCAA rule and wore their home jerseys for that season's game in the Rose Bowl. USC was charged with a timeout at the opening kickoff and UCLA responded by calling a timeout immediately after to make it even.

• The Crosstown Cup is the annual award given to the school that wins the most head-to-head matchups in the academic year.  UCLA currently leads this season 25-10 with 10 points at stake on Saturday. UCLA actually had a shutout going until the Bruin men's #1-ranked waterpolo team lost to #2 USC Sunday, 8-7. It ended a record-setting 57-game, NCAArecord win streak by UCLA that went back to November 2014. 

• The annual Beat 'SC Bonfire and Rally is scheduled for 6:00 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17, and takes place near Janss Steps on campus.  

• This will be only the 11th time in the 86 contests between UCLA and USC series that the game wil be played at night. 

• USC is favored by 10 points. 

• The weather forecast calls for a high of 76 degrees on Saturday, with game time temperatures in the low 60s. 

USC's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense

I have some unfortunate news for UCLA fans: if your opinion about USC was formed in September, it is probably woefully inaccurate now. The Trojans, who started the year looking like a mediocre team with a bad offense, have turned into one of the elite teams in the country over the last six weeks, and they've done it thanks to a surging defense and an offense that has improved by orders of magnitude since the beginning of the season.

A big part of that improvement has been due to a change at quarterback, with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold (6'4, 225) replacing redshirt junior Max Browne (6'5, 220). A lot of observers thought that Darnold should have begun the year as the starting quarterback, but either the coaching staff thought differently, or they had different motivations centered around keeping a credible second quarterback in the program. Browne was eligible to graduate transfer before the season, and would have had two years to play elsewhere if he had transferred in August. In any case, Browne did not perform well through the first three games, with the Trojans scoring a combined 16 points in their two games against Power 5 opponents in the first three games (losses to Alabama and Stanford). He has thrown just two touchdown passes this year, and was very ineffective throwing downfield or connecting in general with USC's many talented skill players. With Darnold, USC has suddenly become an elite, explosive offense. Darnold has completed 68% of his passes this year with 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He's averaging nearly 9 yards per attempt, as the passing offense has gotten much more effective with him at the helm. He's legitimately in the conversation for best quarterback in the Pac-12, and that would have been an absurd thought at the beginning of the year, when he wasn't even starting.

The Trojan offense in general is now a top 15 unit in terms of yards per play, with an average of 6.4 yards per play, and it's been even better over the last three games, with an average of 7.1 yards per play. The Trojans have been pretty balanced, as well, with 5.3 yards per rush attempt (a top 15 number) and 7.8 yards per pass attempt (up to 8.4 over the last three games). The Trojans have turned it over a fair amount (1.6 turnovers per game), with Darnold coughing up a few fumbles.

While USC has a bevy of skill talent, the real key to the offensive resurgence, aside from the play of Darnold, has been the overall gelling of the offensive line. It's no exaggeration to suggest that the Trojans have the best offensive line in the Pac-12 at this point. They give up sacks at the second-lowest rate in Power 5 (an absurdly low 2.84% of drop backs) and, like we just mentioned, the Trojans run the ball at an incredible clip. After several years of building experience and developing talent on the offensive line, the Trojans are finally reaping what they sowed, with three juniors and two seniors starting on the line. The one link that was supposed to be relatively weak was at center, where redshirt junior Nico Falah (6'4, 280) has to step in due to injury, but Falah has been very good most of the season. The guards, true juniors Viane Talamaivao (6'2, 315) and Damien Mama (6'4, 325) have started to realize their immense potential, and have developed into dominant run blockers. The tackles, like we mentioned, have been excellent protecting the passer, and redshirt senior Zach Banner (6'9, 360) has been a force run blocking as well at times. Redshirt senior Chad Wheeler (6'6, 310) and sophomore Chuma Edoga (6'4, 290) have split time at the other tackle spot this year, but Wheeler has solidified that position as the season has gone on.

As basically always, USC is loaded with talent at running back, so much so that the Trojans have arguably gotten better running the ball over the last four games, despite senior starter Justin Davis (6'1, 200) being out with a high ankle sprain. Davis should be back in some capacity for this game, but we'd imagine the Trojans will once again lean heavily on sophomore Ronald Jones (6'1, 195), who is once again one of the most explosive players in the Pac-12. He's averaging 6.3 yards per carry this year on 123 carries, and has improved as a pass catcher as well. Davis could get second-team reps, or they could turn to sophomore Aca'cedric Ware (6'0, 195), who's been fairly solid as well, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 70 attempts. Darnold is a run threat in his own right, with an average of 4.2 yards per carry on 45 attempts. For the most part, Davis, Jones, and Ware will get the bulk of the carries, but don't be surprised to see sophomore speedster Dominic Davis (5'10, 180) or even junior do-everything guy Adoree Jackson (5'11, 185) take some carries as well.

WR Juju Smith-Schuster (USA Today)

After a weird start to the season where he was basically not a featured part of the offense, junior receiver Juju Smith-Schuster (6'2, 220) is back to looking like one of the premier receivers in the Pac-12. He's averaging 13.4 yards per catch on 51 catches and has 8 touchdowns. He hasn't quite had the production he had last year, but it looks like it's more due to growing balance in the offense than anything. Senior receiver Darreus Rogers (6'1, 215) and sophomore receiver Deontay Burnett (6'0, 170) have developed into such solid safety valves for Darnold that he's been able to spread the ball around relatively easily (Rogers has 44 catches and Burnett, more of a slotty-type, has 35. Steven Mitchell, Jr. suffered an ACL tear earlier this year, but it hasn't really slowed the receiving corps. The Trojans have also been aided by a resurgent tight end position, with redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe (6'4, 240), sophomore Tyler Petite (6'5, 235), and redshirt senior Taylor McNamara (6'5, 245) combining for 31 catches and 7 touchdowns already this season.

UCLA's defense has been the only thing keeping UCLA afloat this year. The Bruins have been pretty close to elite on defense for much of the year, with a couple of early season issues and then a blip against Utah being the only marks against the defense. For the most part, this is a defense that is pretty good stopping the run, elite defending against the pass, and altogether pretty decent rushing the passer. 

So much of it starts up front for UCLA, with defensive end Takkarist McKinley going from basically an unknown on the national stage to an arguable first round pick. He has double-digit sacks this year, and has been even more disruptive than that number would indicate. He's played his best football over the last few games, and has appeared to get a little healthier as the season has gone on, after starting the year nursing a groin injury. McKinley has been excellent, but UCLA's interior on the defensive line has been good as well, with Eddie Vanderdoes putting together a nice bounce-back year. On the other end, UCLA has used a combination of players depending on the play, but we've really liked what we've seen out of Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who has seemed to have a bit of a coming-out year.

DE Takkarist McKinley (Photo by Steve Cheng)

The play up front has helped the linebacker corps, whose improved play coincided with UCLA's overall defensive improvement. When Kenny Young has played poorly, the entire defense has struggled, but when he's been pretty good (which has now been much of the year), the defense has been, again, pretty close to elite. Jayon Brown, next to him, has been consistently good all season, and now it appears that sophomore Josh Woods is starting to get more comfortable as well, and made an impact last week against Oregon State.

The secondary has been the most consistent strength of the defense this season. Cornerback play has been the quietest strength of the team, with senior corner Fabian Moreau turning in the best season of his career. He had some mild issues last week against Oregon State, but for the most part, he's been as close to a shutdown corner that we've seen at UCLA in at least a decade. Nathan Meadors, on the opposite side, has struggled with injury a bit this year, but he's been very solid as well. The safety position has been good in coverage, for the most part, but has struggled at times against the run, with neither Randall Goforth nor Jaleel Wadood possessing great size. When Adarius Pickett has come in, which is most of the time in nickel, that has allowed Goforth to drop down to nickel, which is maybe more of a natural fit. Pickett has performed perhaps the best of any of the safeties this year, and he gives UCLA very good hope for the future at that position.

ADVANTAGE: Even

This is the game right here. UCLA's defense needs to put together a performance akin to what it did against Colorado two weeks ago, when the Bruins did everything possible on defense to win that game. USC is probably a cut above that Colorado offense, though, and USC's defense is playing so well that you have to figure UCLA needs to not just win this side of the matchup, but dominate it.

Is that possible? Sure -- but not easy. The Bruins will have to do what no team has successfully done this year, and that is harry San Darnold. Darnold has been afforded comfortable pockets to work from most of the year, and the few times he's been pressured, it usually comes against such a blitz that all he has to do is step up and scramble for a first down. UCLA needs to find a way to win match ups up front without having to blitz that often.

Luckily for UCLA, the Bruins have one of the premier pass rushers in the country in McKinley. His speed rush could absolutely cause Banner issues on the edge, and Wheeler for that matter. Again, though, this is going to require a dominant performance from McKinley -- one where he has multiple sacks, and is just in Darnold's face all day.

UCLA's secondary will get tested quite a bit if McKinley and the UCLA pass rush can't get home regularly. Moreau will likely draw the assignment of Smith-Schuster, and that's almost certainly the toughest assignment Moreau will have drawn this year. We feel better about it than we did last year, but we'd feel a lot more comfortable if we knew UCLA would be able to harass Darnold and keep him uncomfortable.

USC's offense is balanced and talented enough that there are just so many pressure points for UCLA to deal with. Even if they defend the pass perfectly, and harass Darnold into an off night, there's still the running game to contend with. Vanderdoes, who didn't get to play in last year's USC game due to an early season knee injury, will need to have an A game against the Trojan front. 

UCLA's Offense vs. USC's Defense

The general theme with USC's offense, that is has improved quite a bit from the beginning of the year? You can go ahead and apply that theme to the defense as well, except the defense started out the year perfectly fine and has gradually turned into a top 20 or so unit over the course of the season.

Statistically, the Trojans are pretty good against both the run and the pass, but probably a bit better in run defense. The Trojans are allowing 5.1 yards per play, which is good but not great, but they're allowing just 3.9 yards per rush attempt (pretty damn good for the Pac-12, where only Colorado is better with 3.7) and 6.6 yards per pass attempt (another solid number). They don't sack the quarterback all that much (78th in the country in sack percentage at 5.56% of drop backs) and they don't force a lot of turnovers (1.5 per game, 70th in the country). They are pretty disruptive, though, even thought it hasn't shown up with a ton of sacks, as USC has 56 tackles for loss. There's also an argument to be made that they're better than their overall numbers show, with last week's game against Washington's very good offense serving as a bit of a coming out party for some of the players.

One of those players is sophomore hybrid linebacker/end Porter Gustin (6'5, 260). Gustin had two sacks last week against Washington, and made life hell for the Huskies' offensive tackles and, for the matter, Jake Browning. He'll most likely be used primarily as a defensive end in this one, and the Trojans hope that he can continue his disruptive play from a week ago. The USC defensive line got shored up quite a bit in the offseason by the arrival of redshirt senior graduate transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (6'1, 320) at nose tackle. Tu'ikolovatu transferred in from Utah, strangely enough, and he has been a force for USC inside this year. Book-ending him will be sophomore defensive tackle Malik Dorton (6'2, 280) on one side and sophomore defensive end Rasheem Green (6'5, 280) on the other. Dorton hasn't been a significant impact player for USC, and he probably won't start the game since USC plays a lot of nickel. Green, on the other hand, has been disruptive, and is the leader on the team in sacks with 4.5. He's a big, athletic guy on the edge, and one thing to keep in mind is that he gets his hands up into a lot of passing lanes, since he's so big and long. USC's defensive line has been hit with some considerable injuries, though, with junior Joshua Fatu, junior Kenny Bigelow, and sophomore Noah Jefferson all varying degrees of out for this game.

If we're counting Gustin among the defensive line, which is effectively what he does when USC goes to nickel, the linebacker corps is comprised, really, of three guys who play significantly -- sophomore middle linebacker Cameron Smith (6'2, 245), senior inside linebacker Michael Hutchings (6'1, 215), and junior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (6'3, 235). Smith has been a dependable force in the middle, and is a big reason why the Trojans are very good against the run. Nwosu is a playmaker in Clancy Pendergast's attacking system, and loves to get upfield (he has 7 tackles for loss this season, second behind Gustin for the lead on the team). Hutchings has developed into a solid enough player here in his senior year, and has been credible against the run despite his lack of overall size.

CB Adoree Jackson (USA Today)

The secondary for USC is pretty good as well, with junior freak cornerback Adoree Jackson (5'11, 185) leading the way. Jackson is true do-everything player, but what he does best is play cornerback. He blew one coverage last week against John Ross III that went for a touchdown, but he also recorded two interceptions in the game and has been basically a lock down cover guy most of the year. He has the ability to change games in all areas. Opposite him, sophomore Iman Marshall (6'1, 200), the more physical of the two, will get the start. Marshall has been more than OK during his sophomore year, but probably not quite at the level many thought coming out of high school. Between the two of them, though, Marshall and Jackson have six interceptions and 13 pass breakups, so they're doing something right. The safety spots are manned by a group of, mostly, senior Leon McQuay (6'1, 195), redshirt junior Chris Hawkins (5'11, 185), and sophomore Marvell Tell (6'3, 190). They all play relatively equal amounts, and it's worth noting that McQuay has developed into a decent player after looking quite toasty two years ago against UCLA.

UCLA's offense is somewhere between below average and outright bad, and that largely has to do with a pronounced inability to run the ball basically all year. If there's reason to hope, it's that UCLA was able to run the ball a bit last week against Oregon State (averaging 5.6 yards per carry). Of course, the Beavers had arguably the worst rush defense in the Pac-12, so there's that caveat.

The offense has basically been crippled from the jump thanks to what now looks like a very ill-advised decision to move to a pro-style scheme without the necessary personnel to run it properly (read: without a quality offensive line). Then, midway through the year, Josh Rosen went down with a shoulder injury, leaving backup and former walk-on Mike Fafaul as the starter. Fafaul, to his credit, has been nowhere near as bad as many probably expected, and has put UCLA in position to be competitive in games, if only the running game could get going. Until Oregon State, it really hadn't.

QB Mike Fafaul (USA Today)

The offensive line has been the biggest issue in the running game. Simply put, the Bruins are incapable of run-blocking with any sort of consistency, especially on the interior, and that has hampered an offensive scheme that was initially designed with the primary focus of running between the tackles. UCLA has experimented with a lot of things over the course of the season to fix the running game, and it appears the Bruins have, at least temporarily, settled on the idea of running more of a spread look for the remainder of the season.

Will that help them generate a running game against decent defenses? I guess we'll see.

ADVANTAGE: USC

UCLA is going to have to break out some wild and crazy stuff to consistently score on this defense. We could easily see a scenario where, if UCLA tries to run the offense it has run for much of the season, it just gets completely stuffed, and the Bruins generate their worst offensive output of the season. USC is more athletic than any defense UCLA has faced this year.

We think it would be somewhat ill-advised for UCLA to base its game plan on what worked against Oregon State -- in other words, suddenly going to a run-heavy scheme would probably be a disaster. UCLA probably can't throw the ball 70 times with Fafaul in this one, since USC will eventually get the range and starting hitting him a lot, but the Bruins should be prepared to throw it 40 or 50 times. USC's pass defense is certainly a bit weaker than its rush defense, so that bears out statistically.

Looking at it any number of ways, it's hard to see UCLA scoring more than a few times -- at least on offense. If ever there were a game to go into the bag of tricks and pull out receiver passes and any number of other tricky plays, though, this would be the one.

Special Teams

USC's kicking situation is relatively mediocre, but the Trojans make up for it by having arguably the best return man in the country in Adoree Jackson. Jackson has 15 punt returns this year for 220 yards and a touchdown, and has 16 kickoff returns for 464 yards and a touchdown. Teams would be best served just kicking the ball out of bounds on punts, and maybe on the kickoffs as well.

Redshirt junior kicker Matthew Boermeester (6'0, 180) is perfectly fine, but nothing special at kicker. He's made 11 of 16 field goals this year, but has a healthy touchback percentage (34 on 61 kickoffs). The Trojans' punter is redshirt sophomore Chris Tilbey (6'5, 205), who has a poor overall punting average (just 37 yards) but has downed 14 of his 38 kicks inside the 20. Return coverage has been good, with USC allowed just 4.5 yards per punt return and 18.8 yards per kick return.

UCLA's special teams have been mediocre all year. The kicking game, thanks in part to some tinkering from the coaching, has never been able to find much consistency this year, with both freshmen specialists, J.J. Molson and Austin Kent, running into some struggles at points. Molson banged home a 49-yard field goal in the last game, though, so hopefully he finds some consistency as the season winds down.

In the return game, UCLA has continued to ride Ishmael Adams, even though Adams has not been consistent or explosive this year. We'd like to see the Bruins roll with a different option, but with two games left, we don't see it happening.

ADVANTAGE: USC

Prediction

Basically, all of the numbers and most of the match ups point to this being a pretty sizable USC win. The Trojans are peaking, while UCLA is fresh off of a four-game losing streak. The Trojans just wrapped up dominating a very good Washington team on the road, and they're playing for a potential Pac-12 South championship and beyond.

The thing is, UCLA hasn't been blown out this year, and the biggest reason for that has been the UCLA defense, which is playing at a very high level, especially over the last few weeks. While we don't see UCLA scoring a bunch against USC, or winning the special teams matchup, we can't shake the idea that UCLA could be able to give Darnold a little bit more trouble than any team has given him this year.

You can also throw in the fact that, by the time UCLA's game against USC kicks off, the Trojans could be eliminated from the Pac-12 South race. If Colorado beats Washington State, and Utah beats Oregon, the Trojans will be out of it, and they'll know long before kickoff. Win or lose for those teams, that could provide an additional distraction for USC.

All the conjecture and thoughts aside, though, it's hard to see UCLA winning this game. The defense would not only have to have a dominant game in shutting down the USC offense, but the Bruins would likely need to come up with a defensive or special teams score as well, since the offense is almost certainly going to struggle. Can it happen? Absolutely -- this isn't even close to the most lopsided matchup between these two teams over the last 15 years.

But in a year where UCLA has ended so many games with close, frustrating defeats, we have a feeling that this one could end up pretty similar.

USC 24
UCLA 17


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