It's Rivalry Week. And it's the seventh straight must-win week for USC's Trojans. And it's UCLA Week.
In that order.
"It's the next game," Clay Helton keeps saying as he sticks to his mantra of weekly preparation above all and for whoever it is.
It's been working "for all of October and the first two weeks of November," Clay says of his 7-3 Trojans (6-2 in the Pac-12) as they head to Saturday's final conference game at the Rose Bowl ranked No. 13 by the College Football Playoff Committee Tuesday..They're not about to jump off that businesslike, unemotional approach.
But there's a confidence here that was nowhere to be found in September. Listen to Daniel Imatorbhebhe, just coming into his own as a redshirt freshman tight end who could almost be speaking for this entire USC team as he descrbed his journey from high school in Georgia to college in Florida to USC.
"I'm bigger, stronger, more explosive and I understand the game so much more," Daniel says of his transformation from a 213-pound wide receiver into a pass-catching 245-pound tight end. "T-Mac [Taylor McNamara] took me under his wing," he says. But not to blow his own horn. Not at all.
Even if his performance against Washington [five catches for 78 yards and the game-clinching TD] have him "getting compliments," from fans and friends the last couple of days. he says, "But for me, I'm never going to get validated by what I do in football."
"And it's not about me, it's about the team. I'm just glad we won."
Which gets us to this week and this USC team, with all those improvements Daniel described in his game, heading off to the Rose Bowl. "Yeah I feel it," Daniel says. "I was here last year [as a redshirt transfer]. I know it's a huge rivalry game.
"I can't wait to get out there," Daniel says of the landmark stadium he saw on TV as a kid. "We watched the parade and everything . . . It's a pretty historic place, right?"
Right. And this is a pretty historic rivalry. Zach Banner got that in just five words into his review of the Washington game. "A great trip home, a great win and now we're off to Rivalry Week," was Zach's opening line.
And then he echoed Daniel. "We have come a long way." .
That change, "between then and now is repetition," said Zach, who was the highest-rated lineman in the Washington game by Pro Football Focus. "Nothing changes our preparation." There's film study Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then getting ready specifically for the particular defender he'll be going against.
But don't say he's downplaying UCLA. "I just told some guy [a TV cameraman] to take his blue hat off so what do you think?"
Justin Davis isn't downplaying the rivalry game against the 4-6 Bruins (2-5 in the Pac-12) who need wins in their final two games to become bowl eligible. The senior just back from an ankle injury remembers the pain "of losing to them twice in a row" his first two years here. The memory of last year's win "will always stay with me." This year's win would mean even more.
And for certain, Clay isn't downplaying the Bruins even if this must be approached like any other game in terms of the Trojans' preparation. Listen to him after watching two days of UCLA film and you can almost see how a play here, a play there and those losses at Washington State and Colorado and to Utah at home could have been reversed.
And that's with backup quarterback Mike Fafaul in for star Josh Rosen. Clay can't say enough about how happy he is for "325-pound Eddie Vanderdoes back in the middle of their defense" and their two dangerous edge guys led by Tak McKinley and solid linebackers and then he named every defensive back and wide receiver who has worn the baby blue and gold since Clay has been here.
Clay said he is impressed how UCLA has been able to change its offense to a pass-first team Top-15 passing team averaging 315 yards in the air. "That's a credit to Mike Fafaul," he said.
And a challenge for this USC defense that has come of age in the streak to stop. But this game won't come down to what UCLA does, Clay says. Or the pageantry he saw on TV back in Texas growing up. It's about "the leadership of this team," he said, "of this whole staff. We lost a game with 16 seconds left [at Utah] and we knew we had something going. We focused on our preparation, we focused on our job."
"It's just the next game," he said of the Crosstown Rivalry, "but that makes it also the most important game."
Two veteran fill-ins for practice Tuesday with USC "battling bumps and bruises," Clay said. Grad assistant Mike Goff, a longtime NFL player, worked with the O-line and Trojan alum Soma Vainuku, healing up from an NFL practice squad injury filled in at tailback for the Trojans Scout team . . . "Always good to have a grad assistant from the NFL," Clay said. "He can still dance." . . . With USC transfer Caleb Wilson at UCLA, Clay said he couldn't be happier for the son of former USC assistant Chris Wilson, who was able to get a scholarship offer from the Bruins after attending USC on an employee tuition waiver because of his dad. The number of tight ends at USC made that a hard deal for him here, Clay said . . . For the injury report, DB Jonathan Lockett was out in pads and running on his hip flexor injury across the end zone and looking like he was close to being back . . . Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Deontay Burnett and Iman Marshall, who all played with unjuries and came out of the Washington game in good shape, were limited Tuesday but should be fine for the weekend . . . tailback Justin Davis looked considerably improved after playing at Washington and trying to get up to speed on his ankle. He is up to speed now, he says . . . Porter Gustin (ankle) and Ronald Jones (knee bruise) both were limited a bit . . . John Plattenburg was sick . . . For more play-by-play from Tuesday's practice, go to TUESDAY UCLA WEEK GHOST NOTES.
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