USC Preview

It's not difficult to recognize that #5-ranked USC has a huge advantage in the crosstown rivalry game with UCLA, but there are some indicators here that lead you to believe it might not be a blow-out and UCLA could steal it. Okay, well, we're grasping...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

 

-- The USC Trojans come to the Rose Bowl Saturday for the annual cross-town rivarly. The game will kick off at 1:30 and be televised nationally by ABC, with Mike Patric and Todd Blackledge calling the action.

 

-- USC is 10-1 overall, 7-1 in the Pac-10, and ranked 5th in both national polls.

 

-- The Trojans have almost no chance of making it into the BCS Championship Game.  It would take some highly unlikely scenario for USC to make it to the game, one in which a UCLA site doesn't care enough to explain. 

 

-- If USC beats UCLA, it will clinch its fourth-straight Rose Bowl berth. If, though, the Bruins beat the Trojans, Oregon State, by way of a tie-breaker, will go to the Rose Bowl. The deciding factor would be the head-to-head factor, with Oregon State having beaten USC.  USC would probably be bumped to the Holiday Bowl.

 

-- For a third straight year, USC was the #1 team in the nation sometime during the season only to be upset and have their national championship hopes dashed. Oregon State dashed them this year.  Last season, the Trojans lost in what is considered the biggest upset in college football history when Stanford beat USC. 

 

-- Then, in 2006, the last time the game was in Pasadena, USC was derailed by UCLA on its way to the BCS championship, with the Bruins beating the Trojans, 13-9.

 

-- It will be the 78th meeting between the two programs, which dates back to 1929.  USC leads the series, 42-28-7.  Since the start of the 1980s, UCLA leads the series, 14-13-1. 

 

-- UCLA had an eight game winning streak against USC from 1991 to 1998, the longest by either school. Then USC followed that up with a seven-game streak from 1999 to 2005. 

 

-- UCLA is 8-5 against USC in the Rose Bowl.

 

-- Last season, in the Coliseum, USC beat UCLA, 24-7.

 

-- USC is coached by Pete Carroll.

 

-- UCLA Head Coach Rick Neuheisel is 1-1 lifetime against USC as a head coach, with both games coming while he was at Washington.

 

-- Three former USC coaches who worked for Carroll now coach for UCLA – Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow, Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker and running backs coach Wayne Moses.

 

-- Former UCLA All-American Ken Norton, Jr. is the USC linebacker coach.

 

-- Neuheisel earned his law degree from USC.

 

-- After some negotiation and posturing, the two teams will play against each in their home jerseys, for the first time since 1982.  Both teams will be penalized a timeout in the first half.

 

-- It will be the last home game for 20 UCLA seniors, with many of those seniors not able to play because of injury. They are: RB Kahlil Bell, WR Marcus Everett, OL Scott Glicksberg, WR Ryan Graves, LB John Hale, DT Brigham Harwell, S Bret Lockett, DL Chase Moline, C Michael Norris, P Aaron Perez, OL Micah Reed, DT Nathaniel Skaggs, C Chris Meadows, and the injured or inactive are QB Ben Olson, QB Patrick Cowan, OL Chris Johnson, DB Robert Kibble, DE Tom Blake and DL Kenneth Lombard.

 

-- It will be the 41st career start by Brigham Harwell. 

 

-- The weather for Saturday in Pasadena calls for clear skies and a high of 76 degrees.

 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. USC'S DEFENSE

 

USC's defense ranks #1 in every major conference category:  Total Defense (210), Scoring Defense (7.8), Rushing Defense (86.5), Passing Defense (124), and Pass Efficiency Defense.

 

It is the consensus #1-ranked defense in the country.

 

The challenge for UCLA's scoring-challenged offense can't be understated.

 

Rey Maualuga.

The engine for the Trojan defense is its linebacking group, led by All-American middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (SR, 6-2, 260), who is an NFL-prototype linebacker.  The strongside linebacker, Brian Cushing (SR, 6-3, 255) will also be a high NFL draft pick in the spring.  The weakside guy is Kaluka Maiava (SR, 6-0, 230), who had first verbally committed to UCLA and is also the brother of current redshirting UCLA offensive lineman, Kai Maiava.

 

Up front, All-Pac-10 defensive tackle Fili Moala (SR, 6-5, 295) is a load. The Trojans don't have a dominant pass rusher this season, and have been doing it by committee, with defensive end Kyle Moore (SR, 6-6, 270) leading the team in sacks with 5. 

 

USC's secondary is particularly noteworthy not just because of its talent but because of its size.  Safety Taylor Mays (JR, 6-3, 230) looks a bit like a defensive end back in coverage.  The two cornerbacks – Cary Harris (SR, 6-0, 180) and Josh Pinkard (SR, 6-2, 210) – have NFL size.

 

USC's defense has been slightly (ever so slightly) susceptible to a good running back this season, giving up 101 yards to Stanford's Toby Gerhart and, in their one less-than-shining-moment, allowed Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers 186 yards.

 

UCLA's running game hasn't shown any capability of being able to do that this season, being worst rushing offense in the conference, gaining just 86 yards per game.  Even though USC <i>allows</i> just 86 yards per game, that's their average, so you can expect UCLA to gain literally almost nothing on the ground in this game.

 

USC is so good against the run that it won't have to pay too much attention to defending against UCLA's running game and dedicate more defenders to completely taking away UCLA's chance to complete a pass. 

Tight end Ryan Moya.

 

You might see UCLA tight end Ryan Moya get his number called often in this game.  Among UCLA's receivers, since he's a quicker, smaller tight end, he might present the best chance of a match-up problem for USC. 

 

But that's if UCLA's quarterback Kevin Craft can get the pass off.  Carroll's defense is going to be smelling blood in getting to Craft.  While USC's pass rush hasn't been overwhelming this season (with 28 sacks – UCLA has 21), they're going to be sending those big, fast linebackers at him.   It will be a matter of Chow implementing a game plan where Craft can get rid of the ball quickly, probably out to the edges like they did successfully against ASU, and also maybe use USC's over-pursuit against them. You can probably expect Chow to try to get the defense going one way, and throwing the other way, with Craft throwing to his backs. 

 

Also, with nothing to lose in this one, you can probably expect UCLA to bring out some considerable trickery.  

 

Advantage: Duh.  It might be the biggest mis-match in the history of our game previews.  The #1 defense in the country against the 110th offense.

 

Craft is destined to take a beating.  He might very well not throw as many interceptions as you might think because he'll have a far less chance of actually being able to get the ball off. 

 

The drama here is Chow going against his former boss, Carroll.  The two didn't part with love between them, with Carroll basically letting Chow leave because he didn't like how much credit Chow was getting for USC's success. Many USC insiders claim that USC's offense hasn't been the same since Chow departed. You can't even imagine how much pleasure it would give Chow to embarrass Carroll's defense, but USC just has too much talent. Its second string would probably keep UCLA's offense scoreless.  So,  Chow will probably take some lumps against Carroll in this one, but you can bet that Chow will at least attempt some things that he hopes will make the Sports Center highlights.

 

USC'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

 

This is the match-up where UCLA at least has a fighting chance.  UCLA's defense has improved considerably throughout the season and has evolved into a good one -- #4 in the Pac-10 and 35th in the nation.

 

USC hasn't faced a defense this good since late October when it went up against Arizona, which is ranked #2 in the conference, and scored just 17 points.  Against OSU's #3-ranked defense, USC scored 21 points and lost. Against Cal's #5-ranked defense, it scored just 17 points.   Even against ASU's 6th-ranked defense, it scored just 28 points.

 

The strength of USC's offense, though, is its running game, and that's UCLA's defensive weakness.  Even though the Bruins have done well against the run in recent weeks against ASU and Washington, it was, well, ASU and Washington, two of the worst running teams in the conference, both averaging under 100 yards per game.

 

USC averages 205 yards per game. 

 

Running back Stafon Johnson.

USC's offensive skill guys aren't what they were in the past, but when you have an offensive line like USC does, it almost doesn't matter. Inside USC might have the best duo in veteran guard Jeff Byers (SR, 6-4, 285) and center Kristopher O'Dowd (SO, 6-5, 300).  It's going to be a great match-up to watch when those two go straight up against UCLA's Brigham Harwell and Brian Price. 

 

USC doesn't have an outright star at tailback, but has used a trio to get a huge amount of production out of the position.  If there's a workhorse, it's probably C.J. Gable (SO, 6-0, 200), who leads the team with 601 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.  Right there with him is Stafon Johnson (JR, 5-11, 215) who is more elusive, with 595 yards on the season.  Joe McKnight (SO, 6-0, 200) is the game breaker, averaging 7.9 yards per carry. Between the three of them, they've gained 1,743 yards and are averaging over 6 yards per carry.

 

Stanley Havili (SO, 60, 225), the fullback, has more receptions (24) than runs from scrimmage (13) and has been effective with both.

 

The Trojans also have a trio of receivers that are, again, not on the level of Mike Williams or Dwayne Jarrett, but very good and effective.  Damian Williams (SO, 6-1, 190) leads the team with 45 catches, and is good at creating space with his quickness and length.  Patrick Turner (SR, 6-5, 220) never lived up to the second-coming-of-Mike-Williams hype, but has been as good as any Pac-10 receiver during his time with the Trojans.  Ronald Johnson (SO, 6-1, 185) is the third option.  USC hasn't used its tight end as much as it has in the last 8 years or so, with starter Anthony McCoy (JR, 6-5, 255) having only 13 catches for the season.

 

The offense clicks because of the overall steady performance of its quarterback, Mark Sanchez (JR, 6-3, 225). Again, he's no Matt Leinart, but he's still the #10 QB in the nation in terms of passing efficiency (161.58).  He's only thrown 9 interceptions on the year, against 28 touchdown passes, and has completed 65% of his throws.  Of course, accomplishing those stats is a heckuva lot easier when you're standing behind USC's offensive line, which has allowed only 17 sacks on the season. Plus, if you watch a USC game, Sanchez doesn't even get touched very often. 

 

The USC passing game is not the high-flying circus it was a few years ago, averaging a fairly modest 245 yards per game, but it's efficient under Sanchez.  It doesn't have to produce that much since the running game is averaging 5.4 yards per rush. So, USC runs the ball almost 60% of the time.

Reggie Carter.

 

UCLA's passing defense is second in the nation in yards allowed (behind USC), yielding just 158 per game. So, in a game where you're looking for competitiveness, the match-up of USC's passing game against UCLA's pass defense is where to look.  UCLA's cornerbacks, Alterraun Verner and Michael Norris, have had very good seasons, but they haven't often faced the depth of talent at wide receiver that USC has – or defended against a quarterback who very rarely gets touched by a pass rush. 

 

UCLA's defense has relied more on its base defense recently, but even when it goes to the nickel, the common thread of the defense has been linebacker Reggie Carter.  He's put together an All-Conference season, currently eighth in average tackles per game (6.9).  

 

Advantage: USC. But surprisingly, on paper, not by that much.  It is truly a premier match-up, the 15th-ranked offense in the land against the 35th-ranked defense.  It will make the game, at least for half of it (when USC has the ball), interesting and competitive.

 

You'd be remiss, however, not to recognize that USC's offense is stocked with veterans, of the NFL-caliber type. UCLA's defense, even though it's improved, is still very youth-dominated, and has gamers like Norris and Korey Bosworth, who probably wouldn't hear their names in the first couple of days of the NFL Draft.   While you can bet that DeWayne Walker is going to come up with a defensive game plan that gives his D a chance to limit USC's offense, as he has every year, USC's offense will probably get the ball in their hands too often, either by the UCLA offense going three-and-out or turning over the ball.

 

Among the three unit match-ups, UCLA might actually have an edge in terms of Special Teams.  USC has gotten some good kick-off returns from both Ronald Johnson and C.J. Gable (they're both averaging over 29 yards per return), but just about every other aspect of USC's special teams has been pedestrian. In fact, the Trojan punter, Greg Woidneck (SR, 6-0, 200) is last in the league in punting, averaging just 36.4 yards per punt.  The field goal kicker, David Buehler (SR, 6-2, 225) is relatively untested, having only attempted 9 field goals on the year and none from beyond 43 yards, mostly because USC usually scores touchdowns. 

 

Prediction

 

If you're looking for any kind of ray of hope for UCLA, this is the angle you'll have to take:

 

USC hasn't scored a lot of points against good defenses.  UCLA's offense, while it doesn't score points, tends to eat up a lot of clock (it averages just about the same amount of possession time per game as USC).  So, combine these two elements and perhaps UCLA can keep USC's scoring down and stay within striking distance.

 

UCLA, then, will have to do everything it can to limit turnovers.  Heck, at this point, you'd rather UCLA's offense ran the ball twice and threw the ball down the field 45 yards (essentially a punt if it's intecepted) on the off-chance a USC defender slips and a UCLA receiver catches the ball, just to avoid a costly turnover.  I don't think there's a UCLA fan out there that probably wouldn't prefer for this game to be played without UCLA's offense; just let UCLA always be on defense and see if it could win the game. 

 

You would think that UCLA will do everything it can to keep Craft from throwing interceptions.  If you take away any potential Craft turnovers, it's plausible to foresee UCLA being within a couple of touchdowns by the fourth quarter, and that's just a couple of USC fumbles away from UCLA being in it.

 

Expect USC to be completely confident they can run against UCLA, and to try to dominate the game on the ground.  UCLA's DC Walker will probably try to sneak an extra man or two into the box to keep USC's running backs from getting behind the defense, where they are particularly dangerous in turning an 8-yarder into a 40-yard touchdown.

 

In 2006, UCLA won that game because, in the fourth quarter, USC had lost its edge and UCLA's defense owned them. The Bruins don't have Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, who had USC's OL on its heels, but it still has Walker, who knows how to use guys like Carter and Bosworth to possibly unsettle USC's OL. 

 

While we didn't do the research, this game might be the one in the UCLA-USC series where a team is more favored than any has ever been – by 33 points. 

 

The oddsmakers aren't stupid. 

 

But there are some indicators here that USC might not light up the scoreboard like you would think.

 

We predicted a UCLA victory in 206, but we can't do it in this one.  Expect UCLA's defense, however, to play a valiant game and keep it from being a runaway.  If it did somehow manipulate a win out of this one, it would be the "steal" of the century.

 

USC  28

UCLA  6

 


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