-- 7th-ranked USC (8-2, 6-1) comes to the Rose Bowl to face 24th-ranked UCLA (7-3, 4-2), for the 72nd meeting between the two schools, going back to 1929.
-- Recently the series has been a matter of streaks. USC has won the last three games, UCLA won eight straight before that, the longest streak in the series history.
-- USC leads the series overall 37-27-7, but UCLA has an edge since 1980, 13-8-1.
-- In USC games played at the Rose Bowl, UCLA is 7-3.
-- USC beat UCLA last year, 27-0, the first shutout in the crosstown series since 1947.
-- USC fifth-year senior quarterback Carson Palmer is a Heisman Trophy candidate. He's 76 yards away from setting the Pac-10 all-time passing yardage record, with 10,836 yards compared to Stanford's Steve Stenstrom with 10,911. He's 667 yards away from setting the record for all-time career yards for total offense. He has 10,619, currently trailing UCLA's Cade McNown, with 11,285.
-- Drew Olson, when he starts against USC on Saturday, will be the sixth UCLA freshman quarterback to start the USC game, joining Tom Ramsey (1979), Bret Johnson (1989), Tommy Maddox (1990), Cade McNown (1995), and Ryan McCann (1999). UCLA, when starting a freshman quarterback against USC, is 1-3-1.
-- It's the first time since 1995 that USC has entered the game ranked in the top 25. It's the first time since 1993 that both teams enter the game ranked in the top 25.
-- UCLA has won the last four games when USC has been ranked (1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995).
-- UCLA's fifth-year senior quarterback, Cory Paus, broke his ankle in the Cal game October 19th. He will, as most everyone knows, not be able to play in his final game against USC, but he'll be on the sideline on Saturday for the first time since his injury. Head Coach Bob Toledo has named him a captain for the game.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. USC'S DEFENSE
This one isn't too hard to figure out. UCLA's offense will go as far as its two true freshman quarterbacks, Drew Olson and Matt Moore, can take them. And it's almost impossible to determine how far that will be.
If you're playing the odds, you'd have to be betting against them. Freshmen quarterbacks don't generally fare well in the UCLA/USC game, for either the Bruins or Trojans, in the history of the series. There is so much added pressure, being the big, crosstown rivalry.
To their credit, though, they have led UCLA to three victories in its last three games, albeit against three of the worst teams in the Pac-10. But two of those games were on the road, and one against Washington, which is notoriously the toughest place to play in the Pac-10. So, Olson and Moore have felt some nerves so far this season. They're also at home, in the Rose Bowl, which helps considerably. If this game were being played at the extremely uncomfortable confines of the Coliseum, it would be pretty bleak.
You can expect UCLA's offense to not be able to do everything it's capable of, limited by its young quarterbacks grasp of the playbook and overall experience. But you can also expect UCLA to attempt to do more than what you've seen in the last three weeks. UCLA had two weeks to prepare for this game, with a bye week, and it used that time to cram more knowledge into Olson and Moore. Plus, UCLA has a bit of the surprise factor on its side; most aren't expecting UCLA to open up its playbook much with the two freshmen, but you can maybe expect a few surprises in that regard.
USC has a very well-schemed defense, one that is confusing to quarterbacks, even veteran quarterbacks, much less true freshmen quarterbacks. They move their defenders around in different positions, blitz from varying formations, and keep the opposing offense off-balance. They've been effective doing it this year, too, with the #2 total defense in the Pac-10. They've also been good at pressuring quarterbacks, and not necessarily getting as many sacks as you might expect, but pressuring quarterbacks into quick throws and getting hits on them.
Of course, leading this USC defense is All-American safety Troy Polamalu, who is a quick, aggressive player that seems, at times, to be all over the field. Polamalu, though, is suffering from a pretty nagging ankle sprain, and has for the last several games. While he's making a great effort, and is still effective, he hasn't been the same player in recent games. He's playing on Saturday, and he'll definitely make some plays, but he's still hampered by his injury.
Really stepping up for USC's defense to be the next most consistent play-maker after Polamalu has been sophomore linebacker Matt Grootegoed (pictured above). Even though he's undersized at 5-11 and 205 pounds, he's been very active and disruptive to opposing offenses, and has the most tackles on the teams with 64, and leads the team in sacks with 6. Grootegoed has been particularly good around the line of scrimmage, using his speed to run down ball carriers and to blitz the quarterback.
USC's defensive line has had a good season, holding opposing offenses to just 88.3 yards rushing per game. And they've done it the last four games without the services of the player regarded as probably their best lineman, Shaun Cody, who is out for the season with an injury. They've done it most because of a couple of talented sophomores, defensive end Kenechi Udeze, and defensive tackle Mike Patterson. Both have shown great quickness and instincts.
UCLA is second in rushing offense in the Pac-10, averaging 149 yards a game on the ground. First is Oregon State, averaging 160. Third, fourth and fifth is Oregon, Stanford and Washington State, averaging 148, 137 and 135 , respectively. Between Oregon State, Oregon, Stanford and Washington State, USC gave up an average of 140 yards a game.
UCLA's redshirt freshman tailback Tyler Ebell is now headlining UCLA's running game. Since becoming UCLA's #1 tailback, he's had six 100+ rushing games in a row, and averaged 135 yards a game on the ground. UCLA's running game has done well in the Pac-10 since Ebell has taken the bulk of the carries. UCLA also will be working in bruiser Manuel White more often against USC, in certain situations, and certainly in short-yardage situations. White missed a good portion of the season with a hamstring injury, and returned for limited action two weeks ago against Arizona. He is the perfect complement to Ebell – the 6-3, 240-pounder comes in and pounds you after you've been trying to track down Ebell the little scatback Ebell. The USC game will really be the first time we'll be able to see them together, completely healthy and ready to play.
All indicators point to UCLA being able to do moderately well running the ball against USC, with Ebell coming close to getting his 100 yards. Getting, say, 140 yards on the ground and Ebell and White being effective is crucial in UCLA's offense being able to move the ball and get some points. Without it, there is far too much pressure on UCLA's young quarterbacks to make plays.
UCLA will be looking for its other proven playmakers to carry some of that responsibility, too. Craig Bragg has proven that he's the best receiver on the team this year, and one of the best in the west. Tab Perry has had some great moments during the season, and UCLA will need him to come up big this game. Also watch for freshman Junior Taylor to get an opportunity to make an impact. One of the matchups where UCLA clearly has an edge in this game is UCLA's receivers against USC's cornerbacks. USC has pieced together a defensive secondary all season, due to injury. Since putting Marcel Almond in as one starting cornerback four games ago, the passing defense has improved considerably. UCLA, though, will try to exploit Darrell Rideaux, USC's 5-8 cornerback, on the other side.
What will be interesting to watch is how much Mike Seidman (pictured at left) is used, and it what ways in this game. USC's defense will be trying to get as much pressure as possible on UCLA's young quarterbacks, and UCLA's offensive line, which has shown vulnerability to a quick pass rush this season, might need to have its tight ends stay in and block quite a bit. Seidman is definitely a wild card in this game. He's had a tremendous senior year, and is among the best tight ends in the country. USC's linebackers are quick, but small, and Seidman has done well in beating up smaller linebackers this season. Whether UCLA feels comfortable with its pass protection and release Seidman into the secondary often will be a question. If you see the UCLA freshman quarterbacks getting enough time to throw -- and throwing the ball to Seidman – early, that's a good sign for UCLA.
But again, it comes down to UCLA's youngsters at quarterbacks. UCLA will try not to put the game so much in their hands, by hoping that it can establish a ground game, and hope that Bragg, Perry and Seidman can make some plays. But it's still going to demand that Olson and Moore execute.
The UCLA offensive game plan will probably look a bit different in this game. With two weeks to prepare, you can expect some different formations and some quick drops and quick throws, to keep Olson and Moore safe. In fact, UCLA's offense might resemble USC's quick-throwing offense in this game. Watch for Manuel White to make like USC's Malaefou Mackenzie and catch some balls out of the backfield on short routes, too.
Perhaps the biggest matchup here is Toledo's offensive scheme against the defensive scheme of USC's Pete Carroll. Toledo handles UCLA's offense primarily and Carroll handles USC's defense. This is perhaps one of the biggest determing factors in this game – whether Toledo or Carroll win their head-to-head chess match.
Advantage: USC. It's not hard to give USC the edge here. They have the second-best defense in the Pac-10 that is aggressive, quick and likes to blitz, going against UCLA's two freshmen quarterbacks. UCLA's offense will give Olson and Moore every opportunity to execute, it's just a matter of whether they can. If one, or both, steps in and is completely comfortable, and it's almost impossible to predict, it could get very interesting. Both are very accurate passers, especially for freshmen. But, going with the odds, you have to give the nod to USC's defense, which has done a good job of getting even the most experienced quarterbacks out of rhythm this year.
USC'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
The bread and butter of USC's offense is its short passing game. Carson Palmer throws short very accurately, and he doesn't, then, have to make decisions, and it doesn't put too much pressure on USC's average line to protect him.
While every opponent knows this, USC has been so good at it no one really has been able to stop them. USC is so imaginative throwing short, throwing under coverage, swinging it out to its running backs, etc., and doing it from so many different formations, it's kept defenses guessing most of the year.
Perhaps what has really made it work this season is the emergence of two of its receivers, freshman Mike Williams (pictured at right) and sophomore Keary Colbert. They're not only playmakers, but have been very steady in catching the short pass and then advancing the ball well for good yardage. It's made it easy on Palmer, being able to throw a quick out to either of them and get 8 to 15 yards fairly easily.
This short passing game sets up the rest of USC's offense. It tenderizes opposing pass defenses, and then Palmer will throw deep. It keeps a defense spread out, so USC's running backs can pick through holes. And it keeps USC's offense moving down the field.
Probably the biggest matchups of the day, that will more than likely determine the outcome of this game, will be USC's wide receivers against UCLA's cornerbacks. Keary and Williams, along with USC's speed receiver, Kareem Kelly, against UCLA's Ricky Manning and Matt Ware. Ware, at 6-3, will match up the most with the 6-4 Williams. Two young and very talented players going head to head for two intense rivals like this. And then you have the UCLA veteran and leader, Manning, trying to win his last attempt against USC. This is truly what's great about college football.
It's difficult to predict who will win this matchup. Williams is hampered by injury and he hasn't been the same player as he was a few weeks ago. To the credit of how good he is, he's still pretty good when he's injured. Colbert has had a good year, but he's also been taken out of a few games by good cornerbacks, and he's prone to fumble. Then there's always Kelly, who has the potential to really burn you. The biggest key for UCLA is that Matt Ware stay in this game and avoid injury.
Tight end Alex Holmes has been more and more effective as the season has gone on. He's pretty large, and has good hands, and is another option that Palmer uses quite well in addition to his other receivers.
In the trenches, UCLA has an advantage. UCLA's front seven stacks up pretty well against USC's offensive line. UCLA's linebackers have to be the best unit in the Pac-10 this season, with All Pac-10 candidate Marcus Reese (pictured at left) having an outstanding season. He also hasn't beaten USC and will be fired up. In the middle of the line you also have to very solid seniors in Steve Morgan and Sean Phillips, and UCLA's defensive end, Dave Ball, has emerged as one of the best in the Pac-10. Also, don't be surprised if Rodney Leisle, UCLA's huge defensive tackle that has been out with a broken foot, suddenly is cleared by team doctors and plays on Saturday.
USC's running game has, in the last several game, started to actually be consistently effective, for the first time in years. And in the same way that Tyler Ebell has really breathed new life into UCLA's running game, you mostly have to give the credit for USC's recently effective running game to Justin Fargas. USC simply doesn't have a great run blocking offensive line, and Fargas has, in recent weeks, gained some yards, earning just about every foot of every yard on his own. He's proven to be a very tough runner who runs north and south very well. He then softens up the opposing team's interior line, and then speedster Sultan McCullough comes in and tries for a corner, for the big play. Malaefou MacKenzie is really effective catching the ball out of the backfield.
USC's offense has really kept improving throughout this season and definitely peaking at the right time. No defense has been able to stop them, or even contain them in USC's last four or five games.
And make no mistake, the offense is completely dependent on Carson Palmer. Once being limited by poor decisions, Palmer has really matured as a fifth-year senior and is making far less mistakes this year. His improved confidence in the offense and grasp of it have made all the difference.
So, UCLA will try everything it can to get Palmer out of his rhythm, and hopefully get him to fall back into some old bad habits of bad decisions. The key is to cover USC's receivers on their short routes well, making Palmer have to look for a secondary receiver, and make him stay in the pocket while he's doing it. UCLA has shown some vulnerability in allowing quarterbacks out of the pocket, and then some more vulnerability when quarterbacks are scrambling. It's going to be a key assignment that UCLA's defensive line and blitzing linebackers and secondary keep Palmer contained.
So much will be determined here by whether UCLA's aggressive defense will be able to get to Palmer. With his short drops and quick throws it makes it difficult. Again, so much is dependent on UCLA's cornerbacks being able to cover USC's receivers tightly and then leave it up to UCLA's pass rush to pressure Palmer.
Like with the matchup of UCLA's offense versus USC's defense, quite a bit will be decided by the game plan and the schemes. USC's offensive coordinator Norm Chow against UCLA's defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Snow will bring pressure on Palmer from various places on the field, and Chow will try to throw and run around it.
Advantage: Even. USC's offense has been really potent as of late, but UCLA's defense is playing very well and matches USC's strengths with its own strengths. USC has done well exploiting mediocre cornerbacks this season, but it won't see them against UCLA. The question will be: Can UCLA get pressure on Palmer and force him in to bad decisions? Snow will bring out some new wrinkles to try to get Palmer confused just long enough to get some pressure on him. Another great head-to-head matchup with be Fargas and Reese, both seniors, both playing very well. Who wins that battle could determine whether USC has a running game or not. More than likely USC will be able to move the ball, but not with the ease it has in recent games.
PREDICTION: All indicators point to USC. And the clear, biggest advantage is at quarterback. USC has a fifth-year senior and UCLA has two true freshmen. So, USC, by all accounts should win this game.
But in this rivalry, there have quite often been games that don't go by the plan, and veer far off track from what you would have predicted. Emotions aqnd intangibles have played a big part in the game; teams that were clearly better in the series have been out-played by their opponents, merely because the opponents wanted it more. For some almost bizarre reason, it's a game where some unknown players have stepped up and become heroes. There is a long history of upsets in the series. Upsets where one team had it rolling and was expected to win, and it seemed like they themselves expected to win, and they were beaten. While there's nothing like stats or facts to hang it on, there seems to be a little element that USC is a bit too confident they're going to win (Especially when USC sends two athletic department representatives to campaign for a BCS bowl with two games left on their schedule). So, even though, when you analyze it, most indicators point toward USC, this is one of those times that is ripe for an upset. UCLA is young and loose, and doesn't have near the pressure and expectations to win the game like USC does. It's in the Rose Bowl, where UCLA has done very well against USC, especially when USC was favored. And when you're talking about unsung heroes stepping up in this game, watch out for Matt Moore. He has the mental make-up and poise to possibly pull that off.
Plus, heck, we're tired of being so objective. Every once in a while Bruin Report Online has to be a homer, and this is one of those times.