The stakes are enormous and the outcome possibilities starkly different.
In 11 days, a several-times-staggered USC could put a fairy tale finish to another of those strange seasons Trojan football specializes in these days. Beat UCLA Saturday (12:30, ABC/ESPN2) and Stanford the next Saturday and a 9-4 USC team is the toast of the nation and in the Rose Bowl. No, really.
Lose for the fourth straight time to a UCLA Bruin team (8-3, 5-2 in the Pac-12) that's a slight underdog and you finish 7-5 and you could end up in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl some two weeks before New Year's Day as the league's No. 6 bowl qualifier. And the Bruins are in the championship game.
It's like jumping the Grand Canyon on your motorcycle. Make it and you're a hero and everything's great. Come up short and it's a very long way down.
For interim coach Clay Helton, these are life-changing days. Same for his players, especially the seniors. "A chance to make their mark," Clay said after Tuesday's UCLA-prep practice.
Indeed. They would stop the UCLA skid, win the South and for the first time, make it to the Pac-12 championship game, something that NCAA sanctions, coaching instability and an overperforming Bruin program that seems to put all its efforts, emotions and attention into the Crosstown Rivalry under Jim Mora, have prevented.
"That's crazy, man," Chad Wheeler said of those starkly different endings to this season. "Eleven days . . . that's crazy."
So how do you handle that challenge? "You live in the moment," Chad said. "Every day is football. You live and breathe football."
So how did today go, the first full opportunity to get ready for UCLA? "Today wasn't good for the offensive line . . . I was (adjective deleted) -- excuse me for that -- but we're going to meet and go over it tonight."
So there's that. It's something Helton would love to see them accomplish. "For these kids, what a neat experience it would be for Cody Kessler, Antwaun Woods, Jahleel Pinner to walk off the field Pac-12 South champs.
The word of the week here is "opportunity." USC has one. One it didn't have to have after getting run over Saturday, 48-28, in Eugene. But there it is.
Even if Mora has done "a fabulous job" according to Helton and with "a true freshman quarterback" in Josh Rosen whose decision making wows quarterbacks coach Helton in this game he calls "one of the epic rivalries in college football."
This is no time to think about the next 11 days, Helton said. This is the time "to stay calm . . . it starts with me." And everybody knows what's on the line here.
No need to stoke the emotions, he says. It's all about "assignment, technique and effort," Helton is preaching. Which gets us back to that extra meeting of the O-line to get some things squared away.
Sure, it'd be great to play in the Rose Bowl," Kessler said as he shoots for his first win over the Bruins in three starts. "It'll obviously be emotional but my job is to keep these guys focused on today's practice."
Viane Talamaivao, back with the first team at right guard after missing Oregon with a torn meniscus, said no way that happens. "We're thinking about practice and UCLA, not anything about the Rose Bowl."
Nor any thoughts about the talk of how much more physical UCLA has been in recent years. "We don't take into account what other people say," Viane said. This is about USC.
Zach Banner summed it up perfectly. "They win, they go. We win, we go."
But when asked what's been keeping this USC team from getting where it wants to go, Banner wasn't going there.
"I've got to go now," he said, picking up his helmet and shoulder pads heading off.
TUESDAY QUICK HITS: Another shorts, shoulder pads and helmets practice Tuesday to start UCLA week as the regular season finishes up . . . no more full-pads work the rest of the regular season . . . Talamaivao said he's feeling great and ready to go with his Oregon replacement Chris Brown, after a very good effort there, available from the second group . . . LB Osa Masina in pads but taking it easy on his strained hamstring . . . Tre Madden was in pads and running team stuff from the start and looking much more ready than in the previous three weeks when he couldn't play . . . big pickup for USC in short yardage and pass protection . . . big return from freshman safety Marvell Tell out five weeks with a broken collarbone . . . gives USC three healthy safeties, Clay said, instead of the two they went into Oregon game with . . . WR Christian Tober was also back from his broken collarbone and made some plays . . . Safety Leon McQuay was in gear and doing more work than a week ago when he wasn't able to go at Oregon . . . Pres. Max Nikias here early for about 45 minutes, talked to Clay, even snapped a photo of the Trojans warming up with his cellphone . . . Alex Wood was back and kicking, struggling a bit, after missing the Oregon game with a concussion . . . Juju Smith-Schuster had both his ankles taped over his shoes but moving pretty well . . . As is usually the case Thanksgiving week, some out of town parents here today getting the number into double digits . . . It was high school jersey day for some seniors -- Kessler, Soma Vainuku, Kris Albarado, George Katrib, Nick Schlossberg, Pinner and Tre Madden -- as well as a Mesa (Ariz.) JC jersey day for Claude Pelon. Not as widespread this year as in past years.CHECK THIS OUT: For Tuesday's practice report, check out TUESDAY BRUINS WEEK GHOST NOTES.
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