USC vs. UCLA Preview

It’s “The Next Episode” between USC and UCLA, but more than just bragging rights are on the line.

Game 11: ‘South Central, Out to the Westside, It’s California Love …’

The USC Trojans (7-3, 6-2 Pac-12 South), ranked No. 19 by the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee and No. 24 by the Associated Press (AP) and USA Today polls, face the crosstown rival UCLA Bruins (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12 South, No. 9 CFP, No. 11 AP, No. 12 USA Today) on Saturday, November 22 at 5 p.m. PST at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl and in front of a national ABC television audience. According to SportsBettingDime.com, the Bruins are a three-point favorite against the Trojans in this important Pac-12 South match-up. It’s the 84th meeting, with the Trojans holding a 46-30-7 edge. Though USC has won 12 of the past 15 in the series, the Bruins have won the past two crosstown battles – 38-28 in the previous Pasadena clash in 2012 and 35-14 last season at the Coliseum.

Last week, USC exploded early, leading California 31-2 in the second quarter before easing home with a 38-30 Thursday night victory at the Coliseum. Nelson Agholor notched his second consecutive 200-yard receiving game, accounting for 216 yards on 16 receptions, one catch short of the school record held by Robert Woods. He also caught two of Cody Kessler’s four TD passes. Meanwhile, the Bruins became the latest Pac-12 South team to enjoy some extra time to prepare for USC following a 44-30 win at Washington on Nov. 8. Junior quarterback Brett Hundley threw for 302 yards and two TDs, and also ran for two scores as UCLA built a 31-10 halftime lead before coasting home.

Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (7-3 at USC, 41-32 career) is in his first season at USC after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as a USC assistant under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). In Westwood, UCLA headman Jim Mora (27-10) is in third season. Mora is clearly the best coach to roam the Bruin sideline since the peak of the Terry Donahue Era in the 1980s, but UCLA struggled early with high national expectations in 2014. However, the Bruins have thrived since losing back-to-back games against Utah and Oregon in October, winning their past four games and looking more impressive each week.

UCLA Offense

Though offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s group operated in fits and starts early in the season, the Bruins remain talented. They’ve improved as the season has gone on for a couple of reasons – they’ve unleashed Hundley in the running game, and they’ve protected him more effectively. UCLA ranks in the middle of the Pac-12 in total offense (489.2 yards per game, fifth) and scoring offense (34.7 points per game, sixth), but the Bruins’ rushing attack – keyed by Hundley out of UCLA’s read-option sets – is the conference’s second best, notching more than 215 yards per game. Many expected Hundley to vie for the Heisman Trophy in 2014 and, though some early struggles ended that speculation, he’s still the difference maker for the UCLA offense. He’s completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 2,547 yards and 17 TDs (with just four interceptions). He is also UCLA’s second-leading rusher (564 yards, 4.2 per carry, seven TDs) even though he’s taken 29 of the 31 sacks allowed by UCLA.

Junior Jordan Payton has set himself apart as UCLA’s go-to target in 2014. Payton leads the Bruins in catches (58), receiving yards (839) and touchdowns (7). While many see him as a possession option, Payton does have big play ability. Classmate Devin Fuller has 45 catches, but averages just 7.3 yards per. Others who will see targets include sizeable redshirt freshman Eldridge Massington (24 catches, 14.8, two TDs), junior Devin Lucien (23, 7.4), sophomore Thomas Duarte (21, 17.3, two TDs) and freshman Mossi Johnson (13, 10.3, one TD). Also, keep an eye on sophomore Kenneth Walker III, who had two of his three catches this season in the Bruins’ win at Washington, including a 57-yard TD.

Sophomore Paul Perkins has put a stranglehold on the Bruins’ running back position. He’s second in the conference (to USC’s Javorius “Buck” Allen) in rushing yards (1,172). He averages 6.2 yards per carry, also second in the Pac-12. He possesses excellent speed and surprising power for his frame. Additionally, he’s averaging more than eight yards on his 24 receptions. Senior Jordon James, who started 2013 with some big games before an injury wrecked his season, has struggled to regain full effectiveness. He will see spot duty, is averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and also has 10 receptions. Sophomore fullback Nate Iese is a solid blocker and a reliable outlet receiver (11 catches), while sophomore linebacker Myles Jack also sees spot short-yardage duty. He’s been slightly less effective in the role in 2013, but still averages 4.2 yards on 26 carries with three TDs.

After a number of years where the Bruins’ offensive front was hammered by injuries, things have been more stable. UCLA’s starting five features junior center Jake Brendel, an honors candidate, and sophomores Scott Quessenberry at right guard and Caleb Benenoch at right tackle. The trio has combined for 28 of a possible 30 starts at their spots. Things have shuffled around a bit more on the left side due to some nicks, but redshirt freshman Conor McDermott has settled in at tackle in recent weeks, while sophomore Alex Redmond and senior (and Miami transfer) Malcolm Bunche are solid options at guard. Bunche is also plenty capable at tackle, where he’s started six times in 2014.

UCLA Defense

When Lou Spanos left the UCLA defensive coordinator spot for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans following the 2013 campaign, Mora – a defensive specialist – elevated long-time friend Jeff Ulbrich to the post from linebackers coach. While the results have been up-and-down – and Mora and Ulbrich engaged in a rather public sideline shouting match during the Bruins’ loss to Oregon – the idea remains the same one that Mora arrived with: be more physical, be more disruptive and play with an edge. After some great success in forcing turnovers and creating a stellar pass rush during the past two seasons, UCLA’s 3-4 defense has fallen back a bit on both accounts in 2014. UCLA’s 16 sacks rank the Bruins second-to-last in the conference and while the Bruins have nine interceptions, they’ve recovered just three fumbles, also 11th in the Pac-12. Statistically, UCLA is middling – sixth in the Pac-12 in pass and total defense, eighth in scoring defense (allowing 27.9 points), and 10th in rushing defense, allowing more than 162 yards per game. That total includes allowing at least 200 yards on the ground in four of its past six contests.

Up front, senior end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who missed 2013 with a hip injury, has returned with solid play in 2014. He counts three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss among his 45 stops. He’s joined by sophomores Eddie Vanderdoes at the other end and Kenny Clark at tackle. Clark has shown flashes of brilliance and is third on the team with 53 tackles (4.5 for loss). The highly recruited Vanderdoes has just one sack among his 39 stops. Junior Ellis McCarthy (two sacks, 13 tackles) and sophomores Eli Ankou and Takkarist McKinley (1.5 sacks) will see spot duty. McKinley will also see time at the rush linebacker spot.

As usual, senior tackling machine Eric Kendricks is the leader of the UCLA defense. Of his astounding 446 career tackles, 114 have come this season. Playing inside and almost always around the ball, Kendricks also has two sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. At one outside spot, the athletic Jack is a playmaker, though he’s been quieter in 2014. He’s second on the team with 69 tackles (six for loss). At the other outside spot, sophomore Deon Hollins has been the Bruins’ best pass rusher, with five sacks among his 23 tackles. With the Bruins often lining up in nickel sets, the fourth starting LB, insider Kenny Young, has seen the least action. The freshman has 26 tackles. Junior Aaron Wallace (13 tackles) also sees some time behind Jack.

While the Bruins have allowed 17 touchdown passes in 2014, the secondary has also made some crucial plays at key times. UCLA’s starting cornerbacks – sophomore Ishmael Adams and junior Fabian Moreau – have been solid. Adams has two INTs (one a 95-yard score at Arizona State) to go along with 33 tackles. Moreau has 39 stops, three for loss. At safety, senior Anthony Jefferson has plenty of experience as a starter. He has 51 tackles and one interception. After UCLA lost junior Randall Goforth for the season, freshman Jaleel Wadood was forced into duty. He’s responded fairly well, with 50 tackles. Sophomore Tahaan Goodman plays a bit of a hybrid nickel/linebacker role. He has 37 tackles and one INT. Sophomores Priest Willis and Marcus Rios see time as well.

UCLA Special Teams

Junior Ka’imi Fairbairn handles all of UCLA’s placekicking duties. He is the latest in a long line of Bruin booters with a big leg. He’s made 37-of-38 PATs and 14-of-18 field goals with a long of 47. Three of his four misses have been at the Rose Bowl. On kickoffs, he’s nailed 38 touchbacks in 62 opportunities – a good thing since the Bruins’ kickoff coverage ranks 10th in the conference. Junior punter Matt Mengel averages just 39.5 yards, but the Bruins have covered extremely well, allowing just 3.7 yards per on nine returns. Adams is dangerous as a punt and kickoff returner. He’s averaging 10.4 yards on punt returns (ranking 22nd nationally) and 24.3 on kickoff returns, including a 100-yards score at ASU – but overall, UCLA’s kick return squad has struggled.

USC Offensive Gameplan

Once again, Kessler, Agholor and company had a huge day in the passing attack against a struggling secondary. In recent weeks, USC has faced one opponent after another with weaknesses in pass defense – and the Trojans’ offensive planning has clearly taken that into account. It’s hard to complain about Kessler completing nearly 75 percent of his passes against Cal, or totaling 771 passing yards in the past two games. And while Agholor had huge numbers in each of those games, the Trojans got Juju Smith and George Farmer some great opportunities, as well.

However, USC has struggled to find consistency in its rushing attack since putting together a four-game streak of more than 200 rushing yards from Sept. 27-Oct. 18. Though Allen’s streak of six-straight 100-yard outings did not end until last week’s 60-yard performance against the Bears, USC has netted just 102 rushing yards per game in its past three contests. Certainly, the pathetic pass defenses of WSU and Cal were a factor, and the injury to Chad Wheeler that forced some movement along the offensive line cannot be ignored. And in reviewing the Trojans’ early drives against Cal, USC did mix run and pass better than most probably remember. Still, USC must relocate that consistent ground game this week.

Even in last season’s 35-14 loss at the Coliseum, USC had some success running right at the Bruin defense (Allen averaged 6.2 yards on 20 carries) – and UCLA has struggled mightily against solid running teams. With both Damien Mama and Aundrey Walker seeing first-team reps in practice this week, there may be a renewed focus on getting after the Bruins’ front seven. USC must put Allen in position to make plays – and Buck must make them. That’s not to say that the Trojans can’t find some space against the UCLA secondary. USC will take its shots downfield. The Trojan offense has 47 “explosive” plays in 2014 – plays of 20 yards or longer. Thirty-five of those have been passes by Kessler – and the Bruins have allowed 36 explosive plays on defense, while struggling to rush the passer.

USC Defensive Gameplan

The Trojan defense was dominant in the first half a week ago, keeping Cal’s previously solid third-down offense in check and the Bears out of the end zone until a TD pass with nine seconds remaining in the half. Though USC appeared to tire once again in the fourth quarter – allowing two Cal TD marches –the Bears never had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. And USC, led by Su’a Cravens’ 10 tackles, held Cal 12 points and 126 total yards below their previous season averages.

Between the bye preceding Cal and the extra couple of days between that Thursday matchup and this weekend’s game, the Trojans seem to have healed up a few injuries that will put their defense as close to full strength as its been in a while. Senior rush end J.R. Tavai looks good to go after missing the past two games, while safeties Leon McQuay III and John Plattenburg also appear to be back close to full strength. The return of Tavai could be a crucial factor against Hundley’s dangerous running skills. And what of Josh Shaw’s return, and how extensive it might be? Honestly, anyone telling you what to expect out of Shaw – or USC’s deployment of him – is just as clueless as the rest of us.

After facing off against two pass-happy opponents this month, USC faces a wholly different challenge on Saturday. The Bruin offense goes only as far as its running attack takes it. Yes, Hundley is a capable and accurate passer (though he can misfire downfield from time to time) with solid receivers. But UCLA wants to get Perkins and Hundley past the first level of the defense with the football in their hands. Early in the season, the Bruins were trying to keep Hundley more tied to the pocket – and UCLA’s offense struggled. The idea was to protect Hundley from injury, but, instead, he was hit early and often – culminating against Utah, when the Bruins allowed an astonishing 10 sacks. Since then, Hundley’s been turned loose. In the past five games, he’s rushed for 442 yards (78 percent of his season total) and has been sacked just eight times. The Trojans must do something they’ve failed to do in 2012 and 2013: contain Hundley (as well as Perkins) to contain the Bruin offense.

The Pick

As Bill Plaschke’s column this week pointed out – at length – the pressure in this game is squarely on UCLA. To solidify their recent advances on USC as the preeminent football power in Los Angeles, this game is a must-win for the Bruins. As usual, UCLA has exerted some strength in this rivalry only when the Trojan program came upon struggles. USC’s sanctions – combined with the solid hire of Mora, who has changed the attitude in Westwood – has allowed the Bruins to even things up a bit around town.

Yes, I said “even things up,” not “run L.A.” When looking at the Trojans’ recent four-year run on sanctions, the two schools split four games, each finished first in the Pac-12 South once, and the schools’ overall records from the beginning of the 2010 season until now are: USC, 42-20, and UCLA, 37-26. Additionally, this is the fourth-straight year both teams have arrived at this juncture with the Pac-12 South title still in play. A third-consecutive UCLA win would put the Bruins one step away from a second Pac-12 South title and one step further away from USC’s recent 12-of-13 run in the series.

Prior to the season, in my annual Pac-12 preview, I picked the Bruins as 31-24 victors in this game, mainly due to the difference Hundley has made the past two seasons. I remain convinced that if the Bruins are to win this week against the Trojans, Hundley will be the difference.

But, this week – opposed to the crystal balls we were all looking at three months ago before a single snap was taken by either of these teams – there are some definite reasons to believe, if not expect, that the Trojans can come out on top in this game:

  • USC has been outstanding at forcing turnovers in 2014, while maintaining a turnover margin in the nation’s top 20 most of the season – while the Bruins have given it away just as much as they’ve taken it away. UCLA has allowed 30 more points off of its turnovers than USC in 2014. This is a complete turnaround from 2013.
  • USC has been stellar on third down on both sides of the ball – while UCLA has been average. The Trojans lead the conference in third-down defense and rank second in the Pac-12 in third-down offense.
  • USC’s red-zone defense has been spectacular, ranking seventh nationally and first in the conference. The Trojans have simply been outstanding backed up against their own goal line. Offensively in the red-zone, USC failed to score a touchdown after gaining a first-and-goal situation last Thursday against Cal. It was the first time in 2014 the Trojans didn’t reach the end zone in such a situation.
  • USC is outscoring opponents 129-22 in the first quarter – a nation-leading number – and the Trojans haven’t allowed a point on an opponent’s first drive this season.

Beyond just the skill of the depth-challenged Trojans’ front-line players, if USC executes as they have all season, they will give the Bruins a hard time. The questions are: in a high-stakes rivalry game with a lot of emotion on both sides, can USC maintain its personality forged over the season’s first 10 games; and, second, can they avoid the mistakes that have hampered them the past two seasons against UCLA? USC has committed five turnovers to UCLA’s one in the Bruins’ two victories.

Another item to take into account: how will the unabashedly atrocious Pac-12 officials affect the outcome? The Trojans and Bruins are among the most penalized teams in the country – one must assume that there will be a turning-point call (or two) from the comedy troupe wearing black-and-white on Saturday.

If USC fails to continue the trends listed in one or more of the four bullet points above, they will make things very difficult on themselves. But, while I wouldn’t be shocked to see an outcome Saturday close to what I selected three months ago, it also wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see the Trojans turn the tables on Hundley, Mora and Co. And, if you know me at all, you know how much I’d love to see it.

USC 34, UCLA 28

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).




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