QB Josh Rosen (USA Today)

Extensive USC vs. UCLA game preview

While no one has a clue what the 2016 Trojans will look like, a win in Saturday’s South Division decider against UCLA would allow Clay Helton and USC to extend the 2015 campaign.

Game 12: ‘The Future’s Uncertain, and the End Is Always Near’

The USC Trojans (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) host the crosstown-rival UCLA Bruins (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) – ranked No. 22 by the Associated Press and in the College Football Playoff rankings/No. 23 in the USA Today coaches’ poll – on Saturday, November 28 at 12:30 p.m. PST in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a split-national ABC/ESPN2 audience. The winner of the 85th meeting will claim the Pac-12 South Division’s berth in the Dec. 5 Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans hold a 46-31-7 edge in the series, but the Bruins have won the past three games – snapping a 12-1 run by USC from 1999-2011 – including a 38-20 victory at the Rose Bowl last November. In the previous Coliseum contest, UCLA thumped the Trojans, 35-14, in 2013.

Last weekend, USC allowed 24 unanswered points during the second and third quarters as then-No. 23 Oregon broke open a 14-14 tie and cruised to a 48-28 victory over the Trojans in Eugene, Ore. Duck quarterback Vernon Adams threw six TD passes, a USC opponent record, as Troy wasted an impressive effort from tailback Justin Davis (141 rushing yards, 8.8 per carry). Meanwhile, UCLA forced two key fumbles and held then-No. 18 Utah out of the end zone in a 17-9 victory in Salt Lake City. Not only did the Bruins’ victory guarantee that UCLA would have a shot at the South Division title – it also kept the Trojans similarly in charge of their own destiny.

USC interim head coach Clay Helton (5-2 at USC, including the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl) replaced the fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 12 and steered the Trojans to the opportunity in front of them on Saturday. At the same time, UCLA headman Jim Mora (37-14) will face the fourth different USC head coach in his four matchups with the Trojans – some fortuitous timing for the brash, animated former NFL head coach. But there’s no doubt that Mora has imparted his personality in the Bruins, turning what was a middling program into a regular South Division contender. What Mora and UCLA are looking to do now is take the next step – winning the Bruins’ first conference title this century and taking a shot at ending the school’s 30-year Rose Bowl victory drought.

UCLA Offense

Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was faced with replacing three-year starting QB Brett Hundley’s dual-threat productivity – but he had a slew of returning starters at most every other position and all-everything recruit Josh Rosen to plug in behind center. The true freshman quarterback has been impressive – showing his youth less often as the season’s unfolded – with a knack for making big plays at the right time. The Bruins’ passing offense ranks third in the Pac-12 (No. 22 nationally) with 291.2 yards per game, even though UCLA’s completion percentage ranks just 10th in the conference. Combined with their 191 yards per game on the ground (fourth in the Pac-12), the Bruins rank fifth in the conference in total offense with 482.2 yards per game. UCLA has made up for some of its inefficiencies in the passing game by ranking second in the conference (19th nationally) in third-down conversions (46.7 percent) and third in the Pac-12 in red-zone offense. Rosen is completing 60.2 percent of his passes for 3,122 yards, with 19 TDs and just seven interceptions (he’s currently on a 218-pass INT-free streak, a UCLA record). And though Rosen is a pocket passer, he’s become more adept at picking his spots to scramble – see his 37-yard TD run late in UCLA’s loss to Washington State on Nov. 14.

Senior Jordan Payton set the UCLA career receptions record (194) a week ago and has been Rosen’s favorite target. Payton leads the Bruins in catches (71) and receiving yards (1,008), and is second on the team with four TDs. Junior Thomas Duarte is a tight-end sized target with outstanding speed, who has become UCLA’s top scoring threat at receiver – he averages 16.5 yards on 46 catches, with a team-leading nine TDs. Sophomore Darren Andrews has come on in the season’s second half, with 28 of his 33 catches in the Bruins’ past six contests. Most of that productivity has come at the expense of senior Devin Fuller, who hasn’t caught a pass in the past four games after snagging 22 (including three TDs) earlier in 2015. Sophomore Eldridge Massington (nine catches, 12 yards per) and junior Kenneth Walker III (six catches, 23.8) are also factors.

Junior Paul Perkins, the Pac-12’s leading rusher in 2014, has battled through injuries rush for 1,180 yards, ranking fourth in the conference. He averages 5.7 yards per carry with 11 TDs and is also a capable receiver – 22 catches for nine yards per grab with one TD. Sophomore Nate Starks (6.2 yards per on 42 totes, with five TDs) and freshman Soso Jamabo (6.2 yards per on 65 carries, with four TDs) have proven capable. Junior fullback Nate Iese is a good blocker and averages 8.7 yards on 11 catches.

The UCLA offensive line has battled injuries, as well. Sophomore left tackle Conor McDermott appeared to reinjure his right knee (which forced him to miss the Cal game in October) against Utah, and his status seems doubtful for this week. Redshirt freshman Kolton Miller, who’s started four games across both tackle spots, would replace him. Sophomore Kenny Lacy appears locked in at left guard, and senior center Jake Brendel – a four-year starter – is the Bruins’ rock. On the right side, junior guard Alex Redmond also left the Utah game with a hand injury, which pushed versatile right tackle Caleb Benenoch inside. UCLA likely would prefer to have Benenoch at tackle, opening the door for freshman Fred Ulu-Perry to see time if Redmond is limited.

UCLA Defense

Former Penn State defensive mastermind Tom Bradley joined Mora’s staff as coordinator in February. An early spate of injuries – expected leaders at each position group (defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, linebacker Myles Jack, and cornerback Fabian Moreau) were lost for the season by week four – didn’t make the transition any easier. But the Bruins have overcome those losses to improve as the season has played out. UCLA ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense (392 yards per game) and scoring defense (23.7 points per game). Most impressively, the Bruins lead the conference in pass defense (208.5 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense – opponents average just 5.6 yards per passing attempt. And even the Bruins’ maligned rush defense – gashed for more than 300 yards by both Arizona and Stanford – has improved, allowing just 144.6 yards per game and 3.7 per carry in the past five games.

After the loss of Vanderdoes, junior tackle Kenny Clark has taken on the leadership mantle with gusto. He’s second on the team in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (nine), and third on the club with 57 total stops. Juniors Eli Ankou (37 tackles, five for loss, 1.5 sacks) at tackle and Takkarist McKinley (31 stops, 7.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks) at end have been mainstays in the rotation, though McKinley left practice on Tuesday and was in a red no-contact jersey on Wednesday. Sophomore Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (30 tackles, 3.5 for loss, two sacks) would see more time in his stead. Ankou’s backup, sophomore Matt Dickerson (29 tackles, four for loss, one sack), left practice with training staff Wednesday and his status is unknown.

A strong, versatile two-deep has helped UCLA’s linebackers survive the loss of Jack. Junior Jayon Brown has started seven games – five outside, two inside – and leads UCLA with 75 stops. Sophomore inside backer Kenny Young has stepped up, ranking second on the team with 59 stops (3.5 for loss) and an interception. The rotation inside could get a boost if junior Isaako Savaiinaea (49 tackles in just seven games) plays for the first time since spraining an ankle against Cal in October. Senior outside linebacker Aaron Wallace leads UCLA with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks. Junior Deon Hollins (17 tackles, 4.5 for loss)starts at the other outside backer, while classmate Kene Orjioke (19 tackles, 2.5 for loss) also sees time.

UCLA has allowed just 14 passing touchdowns in 2015 – even after losing Moreau and missing junior Ishmael Adams for the first three games due to suspension. Adams returned against Arizona and since has moved into more of a nickel role. He has 25 tackles and two interceptions, including a 96-yard pick-six against Colorado. Junior Marcus Rios (40 tackles, six pass break-ups) has rounded into a solid corner, and the Bruins hope that sophomore John Johnson (17 tackles, one INT) will return at the other corner after missing the Utah game. Freshman Nate Meadors (18 tackles, one INT) replaced him in the lineup last week. Junior Randall Goforth (54 tackles, two picks) and sophomore Jaleel Wadood (51 stops, two INTs) have become an impressive safety duo, with Goforth also able to swing to corner if needed. Junior Tahaan Goodman (37 tackles) and redshirt freshman Adarius Pickett (21 tackles, one interception) provide depth.

UCLA Special Teams

Senior Ka’imi Fairbairn handles all of UCLA’s placekicking duties. He’s a Lou Groza Award finalist and recently became the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer. He’s made all 41 PATs and 20-of-22 field goals, including a 60-yarder vs. Cal. On kickoffs, he’s nailed 55 touchbacks in 75 opportunities – a good thing since the Bruins’ kickoff coverage ranks 11th in the Pac-12 and No. 119 nationally. Senior punter Matt Mengel averages 40.3 yards, but only six of his 43 boots have been returned – for a total of six yards. Fuller and Adams form a dangerous return duo, as UCLA averages almost 12 yards per punt return and nearly 23 yards per kick return.

USC Offensive Gameplan

USC’s offense did a number of the things it wanted to against Oregon: it controlled the ball for nearly 35 minutes; Cody Kessler completed nearly 75 percent of his passes; and its tailbacks – Davis and Ronald Jones – combined for 197 yards on more than 6.5 yards per carry. But the Trojans were unable to keep pace with Oregon due to some early missed opportunities in the downfield passing game, an inefficient passing attack that garnered just 5.8 yards per attempt (7.9 per completion), and five sacks of Kessler – including a game-sealing sack/fumble early in the fourth quarter.

The Trojans found themselves in a 14-14 tie early in the second quarter. But as Oregon’s offense continued to fly past the faltering USC defense, the Trojan offense also stumbled into halftime (and out of it), falling behind 38-14 early in the third quarter. While much of the blame for the loss must be ascribed to the USC defense, the Trojan offense’s inability to throw the ball downfield to sustain drives during this time (USC ended up just seven-of-18 combined on third and fourth down) helped the Ducks roll.

Inefficiency and an inability to protect Kessler are two things that have hampered USC in its past two losses to UCLA. The Bruins have held USC to an average of 295 total yards in the past two meetings – including just 62 rushing yards in 2014 (UCLA was allowing 162 rushing yards per game entering that contest). And the Bruins sacked Kessler six times in each of the past two seasons. USC must be more efficient against UCLA than it has been in its recent past, controlling the clock – UCLA ranks No. 117 overall in time of possession – and running the football. When the Trojans reach third down, the challenge will be clear: the unit that wins the battle in the passing game – as noted above, UCLA is tops in the conference (and 17th nationally) in pass efficiency defense, but USC’s pass efficiency offense ranks second in the conference and No. 11 nationally – will control the game.

USC Defensive Gameplan

From row 82 of Autzen Stadium, there were a couple of Oregon offensive plays where I could have sworn the Trojan secondary was sitting somewhere behind me. Adams had a field day against a group of defensive backs that was out of position all day long. USC’s game plan was to try to take Oregon’s rushing attack away by playing assignment football with three linemen rushing and the linebackers staying in lanes. But, time and again, the Trojans bit on play-action, leaving Adams with a bevy of wide-open receivers downfield. Only in the third quarter, when USC adjusted to bring more pressure, did the Trojans have success.

It was a tough lesson for a couple of linebackers thrown into heavy playing time for the first time in 2015 – and with USC down to two healthy safeties, the coaching staff had nowhere to turn for different answers. With the Bruins coming in, the hope is that Olajuwon Tucker and others will benefit from the experience. In the secondary, it looks like Marvell Tell III will return from a broken collarbone to provide some depth at safety.

That said, UCLA’s balanced attack might be a blessing in disguise for USC. The Trojan game plan will (should?) not expose its secondary nearly as often as it did against Oregon. Yes, UCLA has totaled more than 500 yards of offense six times this season – but it’s also totaled 402 or less in four other games. Up-and-down performances have been the rule for the Bruins’ offense. How can the Trojans usher UCLA to one of those down weeks – especially considering the Bruins have averaged 428.5 yards in their past two meetings with USC? First, Rosen is much more of a pocket passer than the dual threat Hundley was. Still, UCLA has allowed only 11 sacks in 2015, the fewest in the Pac-12, after finishing 11th in the conference in 2014. The Trojans, meanwhile, rank 13th nationally with 33 sacks – including 16 in their past three games. USC must get after Rosen early and often. Additionally, UCLA is second in the conference in third-down offense, but in looking four contests – its three losses plus its one-point win over BYU – the Bruins converted just 19-of-58 on third down. USC, which is tops in the Pac-12 in third-down defense, must win this battle.

The Pick

It’s rare for a team that’s faced such adversity and controversy to have the opportunity to play its rival in the regular season finale for a chance to play for the conference title. But that’s the opportunity that USC has – thanks to a recent four-game winning streak and, honestly, Utah’s inability to handle its business this month. Both the Trojans and Bruins hoped in August that this matchup would give them the opportunity they have Saturday, but I’m guessing no one thought the teams would carry a combined seven losses into such a matchup.

Oddsmakers installed USC as a 3.5-point favorite – giving USC the home-field edge in a toss-up game. Looking at recent matchups between the teams, it’s not hard to imagine the Bruins handling USC on Saturday. After all, both of UCLA’s past two wins over USC were physically and emotionally convincing. And the Bruins have been outstanding on the road under Mora – winning nine of their past 10 conference road games (and 14 of 15 away from the Rose Bowl, overall). UCLA is also an outstanding frontrunner – 32-1 under Mora when holding a halftime lead (the only loss: two weeks ago to Wazzu).

USC must set a new tone early in this game – physically and mentally. Obviously, bringing pressure on Rosen and establishing the run are two ways to do that. One other way: avoid key early special teams mistakes that have turned things the Bruins’ way the past two years (a fumbled punt in the first quarter in 2014 and a 15-yard punt in 2013). USC’s kick return defense has been mostly good but USC’s punt coverage has been a struggle – and the Bruins’ return teams are solid. The Trojans also have to end up on the plus side of the turnover battle – something they’ve accomplished most of the year. USC is third in the conference in takeaways, UCLA just eighth – and USC’s turnover margin tops the Pac-12 thanks to the fact that the Trojans have the fewest giveaways in the conference.

Make no mistake: these teams are evenly matched. UCLA likely holds a mental edge after the past three seasons, but this USC team has been nothing if not resilient in 2015 – often following its worst performances with those among its best. To win Saturday, USC will need to be emotionally and physically invested from the opening moments. This is not a game the Trojans can feel out early. If USC is all in – and gets out in front early – it’s the Trojans who will add a Dec. 5 rematch with Stanford to their calendars.

USC 31, UCLA 27

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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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