-- It's the 71st meeting between UCLA and USC. USC leads the overall series 36-27-7, which dates back to 1929. But in the last 20 years, UCLA leads, 12-7-1. UCLA's 8-game win streak between 1991 and 1998 was the longest winning streak for either school in the series.
-- UCLA's Robert Thomas is one of three finalists for the Butkus Award, which honors the nation's best linebacker in college football. The winner will be announced December 6th.
-- USC has yet to beat an opponent with a winning record this season. USC's wins have come against opponents with a combined record of 15-31. USC, in fact, hasn't faced a team with a winning record since October 6th when they played Washington.
-- 15 of the last 21 games between the two schools have been decided by seven points or less.
-- USC will secure a winning regular-season record and become bowl eligible with a win over UCLA. It would give them the chance to have their first winning record in three years.
-- UCLA's and USC's defenses are the top two overall defenses in the Pac-10. UCLA is allowing 315.7 yards a game while USC allows 349.8 a game. USC's rush defense, though, is the third worst in the Pac-10, allowing 161.3 yards through the air a game.
-- USC's total offense is the worst in the Pac-10, gaining only 334.7 yards a game.
-- USC is tied for ninth in turnover margin (+1.1) in the country.
-- Two of USC's wins this year were the result of late game-winning touchdowns, one with less than two minutes to go against Arizona and one in overtime against Oregon State.
USC's OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
It's UCLA's strength versus USC's weakness. So far this season, when UCLA has gone up against teams with weak offenses they've done their best. Alabama, Kansas, and Ohio State weren't very potentl offenses. In the Pac-10, UCLA's three wins have come against 3 of the five worst ofenses in the league. The worse offense, in terms of yardage gained, is USC's. UCLA's best offense this year has been their defense. If the defense can keep the opposing team off the field, it gives UCLA's offense enough chances to move the ball and score.
In every way you look at this matchup, UCLA's defense against USC's offense, it points toward UCLA dominating. UCLA's defense is second in the Pac-10 in rushing defense and USC is last in the conference in rushing offense. USC's running game has been anemic, with Sultan McCullough injured, having to rely mostly on dependable and surprising Sunny Byrd. But the problem with the running game hasn't really been the running backs; the offensive line is pretty poor at opening holes. The new system installed under new offensive coordinator Norm Chow is a spread, gunning offense that emphasizes short passes, many times with only one back in the backfield. With the emphasis on the pass, the offensive line, which is young, inexperienced and marginally talented to begin with, hasn't been very good at run blocking. Sunny Byrd, stepping in for the injured McCullough, has done so admirably, but most of the time he's fighting off swarming tacklers, averaging only 2.8 yards a carry. Quarterback Carson Palmer is easily USC's most effective at running the ball, scrambling well this year. You can expect UCLA's front seven to be swarming against USC's running game, with the UCLA frontline completely healthy and playing some of their best ball of the season the last three games against some of the best offenses in the country.
USC's passing offense isn't much better. It has been able to make the big play, but has lacked consistency in being able to sustain drives and get the first down in critical passing situations. Palmer, while much maligned this season for alleged bad decision-making, really can't be blamed too much for USC's lack of success through the air. USC's offensive line has allowed 31 sacks this year, the most of any in the conference; Palmer seldom has enough time to be able to make good decisions. All in all, Palmer hasn't been as bad as many have claimed this year. He's done fairly well in Chow's offense, but with the short-passing attack, and with very poor pass protection, it's been hard to sustain drives for USC. The Trojans are dead last in the Pac-10 first downs.
Kareem Kelly (pictured above right) has had a pretty decent year, leading USC in receptions 44 and in receiving yards with 765 on the year. USC will try to get the ball into Kelly's hands as much as possible, since, with his great speed, he's their big-play maker. And big plays this offense sorely needs to put points on the board. With its other starting wide receiver Keary Colbert bothered by sprained ankles, JC transfer Devin Pitts will make his first start, after having caught five passes against Cal last week. Colbert should still play, though.
Facing USC will be the #1 passing efficiency defense in the Pac-10. UCLA has gotten everything it could have wanted out of a defensive backfield that might have had a few questions going into the season. But free safety Marques Anderson is a force this season, and worthy of any post-season accolades he might get. With senior starting strong safety Jason Stephens questionable, freshman Ben Emanuel will make his second start. UCLA has been waiting for Emanuel's light to turn on in practice, and Emanuel has always asserted that he was a game player, not a practice player. He's certainly proved in the last couple of games while filling in for Stephens, playing well, not missing his assignments and being all around the ball. USC will try to test freshman corner Matt Ware, as every offense has this year, but Ware has been very up to the task.
Expect UCLA to be blitzing like mad to disrupt Palmer and try to force him into a bad decision. With UCLA's ability to stop the run and USC's inability to run, it gives UCLA the luxury of dedicating some defensive players to getting into Palmer's face. Robert Thomas, UCLA's star middle linebacker, will no doubt play a big role in the pass rush, and in containing Palmer on scrambles. But expect Brandon Chillar, UCLA's young strongside linebacker who has been having a good year, to blitz and harrass Palmer. Also you can expect the son of a Trojan, Ryan Nece (pictured above left) to be in the Trojan backfield quite a bit.
Advantage: UCLA. USC will undoubtedly pull out some surprises to try to keep UCLA's defense off-balance – as any offense should that is so over-matched as this one is in this game. A big factor in this game could be UCLA's ability to force USC into turnovers, particularly Palmer fumbling the ball, which he's had a penchant to do this season, given how much under pressure he's been. This is the first game since UCLA's last win against Cal that it hasn't faced a high-powered offense and it should be drooling over getting back to complete domination. Before facing the gauntlet of Stanford, Washington State and Oregon, UCLA was only giving up about 12 points a game. You can probably expect USC to be in that range.
UCLA's OFFENSE V. USC'S DEFENSE
This is USC's strength against UCLA's weakness, but not to the degree described above. USC has a good defense, but not dominant by any means, and UCLA's offense, while inconsistent compared to recent UCLA's offense, is still much better than USC's offense.
The interesting matchup here will be UCLA's running game against USC's rush defense. USC's defensive strength this year has not been against the run. UCLA's strength has been running the ball, but they are again absent perhaps the best running back in the country, DeShaun Foster, and his absense was very apparent in the loss to Oregon last Saturday. USC has allowed 161 yards a game on the ground, while UCLA has gained 178 a game. Without Foster, UCLA ran for 120 yards against Oregon, but that was also against an Oregon defense whose primary defensive objective is to stack the box and not allow yardage on the ground. USC will probably attempt this theory themselves, but it's a matter of whether they have the personnel to pull it off. USC has been hit by injury on its front line, and even though freshmen Kenechi Udeze and Shaun Cody have played well for freshman, particularly Cody, they still face a tough challenge in stopping UCLA's running game. You can probably expect UCLA freshman tailback Manuel White to see more snaps this week, showing that he was probably more effective last week against Oregon than Akil Harris. Harris seems to be best suited as a guy to come in once the defensive line has been beaten up, which has been the role of Foster and looks to be the role of White. USC also has some injuries to its starting linebackers, but the generally under-sized unit has shown very good speed and quickness, particularly in pass coverage. Whether USC's front seven can stop UCLA's running game minus Foster will determine a great part of this game. If UCLA can move the ball on the ground, sustain drives, eat up time, and score some points, it will own this game.
Where USC has its only edge, possibly, is in the matchup of its pass defense against UCLA's passing offense. USC's defensive secondary is one of the best in the conference, with good play coming from its two starting corners, Antuan Simmons and Kris Richard. But perhaps one of the best players in the conference overall is junior strong safety Troy Polamalu (pictured at left). Polamalu is the leader of the USC defense, literally (leading the team in tackles with 96) and figuratively. It seems like they get their sense of toughness straight from Polamalu's personality. UCLA's passing game, on the other hand, has been unsteady, even though it's coming off its best game of the season last week against Oregon. Thin at receiver, it was a blessing for UCLA to see Brian Poli-Dixon back in uniform last week, especially since had an excellent day, catching 6 passes for 149 yards. Craig Bragg and Ryan Smith have proven to be potential stars, and you can expect them to have big roles in their first real taste of the cross-town rivalry. Also expect UCLA to go to tight end Mike Seidman at least a few times, since Seidman has become a bigger part of the offense in recent weeks.
But so much of the effectiveness of UCLA's passing game lies in the shoulders – and hands – of quarterback Cory Paus. Paus has been inconsistent this year – one week having a good game, the next having a poor one. He has yet to put together two good games in a row, and has struggled on the road more than in the Rose Bowl. Also, with the conviction over a drunk driving charge becoming public yesterday, he has even another distraction. Coach Toledo hasn't given the definitive word whether Paus will start, or play, but the guess is that he will. But it seems like a bit of a stretch that Paus would be able to overcome his inconsistency, an injured thumb, and this distraction to come out and have a really good game. USC should be coming after him and trying to distract him themselves, and it could be a long day for Paus on Saturday.
The wrinkle that USC will have to take into consideration is the new offensive weapon that UCLA has found in freshman cornerback Matt Ware (pictured at right). Ware played quarterback and wide receiver against Oregon last week, and will probably do so again, just to make USC have to defend one more thing. Ware, though, showed the talent to really impact the game on the offensive side of the ball, and UCLA will try to use it as much as possible without over-using Ware.
Advantage: Even. USC's defense would probably get the nod but they are without a few players due to injury and their weakness is against the running game. Manuel White should be able to punish USC's smaller linebackers, and if UCLA can just move the ball enough to get a few points here and there and keep USC's offense off the field and its own defense fresh, that's probably enough to win the game. Turnovers and penalties on UCLA's part is probably the key here; if UCLA doesn't turn over, or doesn't hurt itself with penalties, they'll more than likely be able to move the ball on the ground.
On paper, this isn't close. But the game, as they say, isn't played on paper. Despite the fact that USC has beaten patsies the last three weeks, and actually was lucky to do it in two of those games, they still have momentum from those wins. UCLA undoubtedly has to be a little deflated from its three-game losing streak and, having once been thinking about a national championship, is now thinking about a minor bowl game. The combination of those two factors are good for at least a few USC points. Also, even though it's still in town, going to the Coliseum is still an away game. It ain't the friendly confines of the Rose Bowl. That's also good for a few Trojan points. But UCLA's defense is so good, and the talent of the team from top to bottom is better than USC enough that UCLA still wins this game. It's also a matter that this experienced UCLA team, populated by many seniors in their last game against USC, will be able to get fired up enough to beat the Trojans in their last UCLA/USC game. But with UCLA's defense dominating USC's offense, and USC's defense taking advantage of some of UCLA's offensive problems, the score will stay low.