Jim Mora (Blair Angulo)

Our huge USC vs. UCLA game preview

Game 11: ‘Take the Highway to the End of the Night …’

L.A.’s eternal rivals meet in a late-evening Pasadena clash. Can stumbling UCLA pull off a season-salvaging upset? Or will streaking USC roll a lucky seven?

The USC Trojans (7-3, 6-2 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 13 by the College Football Playoff committee, No. 15 by the Associated Press, and No. 19 in the USA Today coaches poll, face their crosstown rivals, the UCLA Bruins (4-6, 2-5), on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m. PDT in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. This is the 86th Crosstown Showdown – the Trojans hold a 47-31-7 edge after last season’s 40-21 victory at the Coliseum. Prior to that, though, the Bruins had won three consecutive games in the series – and have won the past two Pasadena contests, the most recent a 38-20 decision in 2014.

Last Saturday, the USC defense throttled the high-powered Washington offense – holding the Huskies to 17 yards rushing and a season-low in points – in a 26-13 victory in Seattle. The victory marked an end to then-No. 4 UW’s unbeaten season, as cornerback Adoree Jackson intercepted two Jake Browning passes and linebacker Porter Gustin notched two sacks. The Trojan offense rolled up 400 yards against a stingy Husky defense, as Sam Darnold threw for 287 yards and two scores. Meanwhile, the Bruins overcame three turnovers with their best rushing effort in two months, gaining 163 yards on the ground in a 38-24 home win over Oregon State. UCLA’s defense had another solid outing in the face of adversity, snagging three takeaways and holding the Beavers to 83 rushing yards.

Under Coach Clay Helton (13-7 in parts of three seasons), the Trojans have reeled off six consecutive wins for the first time since Pete Carroll roamed the USC sideline. The vanquished foe in each of those games was held to – at that time – a season low in points. In his fifth matchup with the Trojans, UCLA headman Jim Mora (41-22) will finally face the same USC head coach in back-to-back meetings. Offensive struggles – including the loss of quarterback Josh Rosen to a shoulder injury and a mystifying inability to run the football – have turned what many expected to be the Pac-12 South winner into a squad that’s battling for its bowl-eligible life. The Bruins’ troubles have taken some of the sheen off of the brash coach who many Bruin fans anointed a savior after victories in his first three meetings with USC.

UCLA Offense

Kennedy Polamalu was promoted from running backs coach to replace the departed Noel Mazzone (now OC at Texas A&M) with the idea that UCLA needed to toughen up its offense. The Bruin brain trust believed adding a fullback and tight ends to the offense would help protect Rosen and create a balanced rushing attack. Instead, UCLA struggled to protect Rosen – leading to his season-ending shoulder injury at Arizona State on Oct. 8. And its feckless rushing offense (87.2 yards per game) ranks next-to-last (127th) in the nation. The Bruins are in the bottom half of the conference in total offense (403.2) and scoring (27.5). UCLA does rank  14th nationally (third in the Pac-12) in passing offense (316 yards per game), but there’s been a big difference since senior Mike Fafaul took over. In Rosen’s six starts, the Bruins averaged 328.7 yards passing. In Fafaul’s four starts, that drops to 297 – and in Fafaul’s biggest performance, a 464-yard outburst in a 52-45 loss to Utah, he threw five interceptions. Fafaul, who’s completing 54.5 percent of his throws (with nine TDs vs. 10 picks), has battled hard in his four starts, but Bruin receivers’ propensity for drops hasn’t helped.

UCLA had to replace three key players from its 2015 passing attack and results have been mixed. Speedy junior Darren Andrews is the most productive pass catcher, averaging 13.2 yards on 49 grabs and tied for the team lead with four touchdowns. Sophomore Jordan Lasley (34 catches, 14.0, three TDs) has forced his way into the starting lineup with recent performances. Other options include senior Kenneth Walker III (21 catches, 17.0, three scores – but only three catches in the past four games), 6’3” junior Eldridge Massington (20 grabs, 14.2), converted senior defensive back Ishmael Adams (19 catches, 9.2), and true freshman Theo Howard, who snagged five of his 10 total grabs this season last Saturday. Senior tight end Nate Iese has been excellent (25 catches, 16.0, four TDs) but left the Oregon State game with a knee injury. He appears to be a game-time decision Saturday, which makes sophomore Austin Roberts (14 catches, 17.9, one score) and USC transfer Caleb Wilson (nine grabs, 11.0) more viable options.

In an effort to shake things up at running back, freshmen Jalen Starks and Brandon Stephens earned 12 carries between them last week after totaling zero over the previous six games. That’s because junior Nate Starks (2.8 yards per on 71 totes, one TD), and sophomores Soso Jamabo (79 carries, 3.9, three TDs, with 16 catches for 12.3 per)and Bolu Olorunfunmi (63 carries, 4.0, four TDs, plus nine catches and a receiving TD) have – shall we say – underperformed. How bad has it been? During a four-game losing streak from Oct. 8 to Nov. 3, the Bruins gained a total of 113 rushing yards (28.3 per game).

Though a veteran UCLA offensive line has avoided too many key injuries, it has struggled. The rushing stats make that obvious, while Bruin QBs have been sacked 21 times. Junior left tackle Conor McDermott is the group’s leader (second-team All-Pac-12 in 2015, 30 career starts). Junior Kenny Lacy (21 career starts) is at left guard, with classmate Scott Quessenberry (29 career starts) at center, and junior Najee Toran – a starter in the past nine – at right guard. Right tackle has been a trouble spot: sophomore Kolton Miller started the first five before going down with an ankle injury. He’s no better than 50-50 for Saturday. His replacement, redshirt freshman Andre James, started the past five but has been in concussion protocol this week. If he’s not ready, junior Zach Bateman is next on the depth chart.

UCLA Defense

Outside of a few hiccups, second-year defensive coordinator Tom Bradley’s experienced group has played well enough to think about suing the UCLA offense for non-support. After suffering through frightful injuries in 2015, the Bruins have been a comparative paragon of health. UCLA ranks third in the Pac-12 in total defense (356.1 yards per game), passing defense (195.8 yards per game), and turnovers forced (21, No. 13 nationally). Because of the Bruin offense’s generosity (23 turnovers lost), UCLA ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (25.8). The lone issue remains rushing defense where the Bruins are maddeningly inconsistent – UCLA gives up more than 160 yards per game on the ground, eighth in the conference. In the past five games, UCLA has held three opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. In the other two, Colorado gained 144 and Utah an astonishing 360.

The Bruins can go 4-3 or 3-4, depending on whether an edge rusher puts a hand on the ground. Up front, the leader is senior defensive end Takkarist McKinley (46 tackles, 18 for loss, 10 sacks), who leads the nation in tackles-for-loss (TFL) per game (2.0) and is second in sacks per game (1.1). Darnold will have to account for him at all times. Junior tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (23 tackles, 1.5 sacks) returned from a season-ending injury a season ago in solid form. Senior Eli Ankou (29 tackles) and junior Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (34 tackles, three for loss, four sacks) have formed a solid duo at the other tackle spot (Ankou can also slip outside). Junior Matt Dickerson (29 tackles, 1.5 for loss), a true lineman, has spent most of the time at the other end spot, as senior Deon Hollins (five tackles, two sacks in eight games), who thrived as a rush linebacker out of the 3-4 in 2015, has never gotten going.

Junior linebacker Jayon Brown has been incredible: he leads the Pac-12 with 97 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, plus two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. And classmate Kenny Young hasn’t been far behind: 72 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, one interception, and three fumble recoveries. Sophomore Josh Woods (20 tackles) and senior Cameron Judge (18 tackles, one INT) have split time at the other LB spot, but come off the field when UCLA goes to a nickel look.

UCLA’s veteran secondary is a key to its excellent pass-efficiency defense (the Bruins rank second in the conference and sixth in the nation). Senior Fabian Moreau (28 tackles, one pick, a team-leading 10 pass break-ups) returned from a 2015 season-ending injury at one corner. Classmate Marcus Rios (10 tackles) backs him up. Sophomore Nate Meadors (22 tackles 5 PBUs) has been nagged by a groin injury at the other corner. The safeties – senior Randall Goforth (43 tackles, a team-leading four interceptions, including a pick-six last Saturday) and junior Jaleel Wadood (58 tackles) – are solid. Goforth can also swing to CB. Senior Tahaan Goodman (23 tackles, one INT) and sophomore Adarius Pickett (31 tackles, three interceptions) are versatile, appearing both in the nickel and as reserve safeties.

UCLA Special Teams

The usually dependable UCLA kicking game has fallen on lean times, due to inexperience and growing pains. Freshman JJ Molson handles all of UCLA’s placekicking duties. He is 11-of-18 on field goal attempts (24-of-24 on PATs) and his ineffectiveness at Colorado saw him briefly replaced by redshirt freshman Andrew Strauch. He bounced back with a career-long 49-yard FG last week. He has only 18 touchbacks in 55 kickoffs, though – important considering the Bruins’ kick return defense ranks 10th in the conference (114th nationally). Punting also has been an adventure, as freshman Austin Kent (38.3 per boot on 44 tries) has been replaced in each of the past two games by sophomore Stefan Flintof. Again, this hasn’t helped a below-average coverage unit that now ranks last in the conference (118th nationally) in punt return defense. Adams is the go-to return guy – he’s averaging an excellent 23.6 yards on 25 kick returns, but just 3.4 on 15 punt returns.

USC Offensive Gameplan

After facing a series of poor defenses, the Trojans found the sledding against Washington predictably tougher. However, a well-drawn plan that featured a full commitment to the running game – even though USC averaged just 3.1 yards per carry to reach 113 rushing yards – forced the Washington defense to leave plenty of opportunities for Darnold and his receivers. Time and again – whether it was JuJu Smith-Schuster in the early going, or Darreus Rogers, Deontay Burnett, and Daniel Imatorbhebhe as the game progressed – Darnold found his receivers open in the middle of the field behind the Huskies’ solid but conflicted linebackers.

Darnold’s maturity and vision continue to astonish. When meshed with his ability to evade rushers and gain yards with his feet, he’s a type of talent USC fans have grown used to seeing – on other teams. Each of his touchdown passes against the Huskies showed different aspects of his talent, and while he threw two interceptions, only one was an ill-advised pass (the other only occurred because Rogers slipped out of his break). Darnold’s tools should serve him well against what will be an attacking UCLA front seven.

The Bruins are likely to trust their solid secondary against USC’s pass catchers while doing everything they can up front to stifle the Trojans’ rushing attack and pressure Darnold. In fact, facing the Washington defense – which featured athletic linebackers and an outstanding secondary – may serve as great preparation for USC. Expect a similar plan from the Trojans: stick with the power run game, forcing the Bruin linebackers to respect it, and then allow Darnold to exploit the middle of the field. Don’t be surprised to see more bootlegs, rollouts, and pass targets for Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis in an effort to slow McKinley’s fearsome edge rush.

USC Defensive Gameplan

Walking out of AT&T Stadium on Sept. 3, who could have imagined that just two months later, this Trojan defense would hold both Oregon and Washington to fewer than 300 total yards – or a combined 102 yards rushing? The resuscitation of the USC defense has been a team-wide effort, which was no more apparent than on Saturday night. Yes, Jackson and Gustin stood out with big plays, but players like Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, Rasheem Green, Michael Hutchings – and others – made play after play. The Trojans were so effective against the run that UW eventually gave up on it.

Now, USC faces one of the more average offenses it has seen in 2016. Though UCLA has solid passing numbers, with Fafaul at the helm, the Bruins have been an all-or-nothing unit. Huge numbers against Utah (when the Bruins threw it 70 times, while trying only 10 designed run plays) have been balanced by disastrous performances, like their effort against Colorado. When pressured, Fafaul is susceptible to bad decisions. UCLA’s rushing attack has been toothless. Suffice it to say, when the Bruins can’t throw it effectively, they have struggled mightily.

There’s no reason for the Trojans to change paths now. After USC’s front four dominated the Washington offensive line, and Clancy Pendergast’s creative blitz packages laid to waste Browning’s putative Heisman Trophy candidacy, expect the Trojans to stick with what’s worked: stop the run, force the quarterback to beat you, and pressure the heck out of him as he does so. While Fafaul can be commended for battling after replacing Rosen, it’s unquestionable that the Trojan defense should put the Bruins’ fate in his hands.

The Pick

You’ve heard it more than enough: “In a rivalry game, throw out the records!” There are plenty of examples of that supposedly eternal truth on both sides in this series. This year, it’s the Bruin fans’ turn to prattle on about Norm Dow and John Barnes and Eric McNeal. But the thing about memorable upsets is that they don’t happen very often – that’s why they’re memorable. For every 13-9, there are oodles of 66-19’s … or 52-21’s … or 50-0’s.

After the initial rush of rivalry emotion in the first quarter, the game settles into what usually matters in any game: which team executes and which team is more physical. In recent weeks, that’s been USC. That’s not to say UCLA can’t win – its defense is aggressive and opportunistic and could make the Trojan offense’s life hell if USC isn’t ready. Helton is right when he says the USC must win the third-down battle on offense – UCLA is 17th in the country in third-down defense, the Trojans 24th in third-down offense. And USC must win the special teams battle that – statistically – it appears to dominate in any side-by-side comparison.

The biggest obstacle for USC, then, is emotional preparation. Will there be a natural letdown after last week’s massive win in Seattle? Could the outcomes of the Utah and Colorado games earlier in the day have an effect on the team’s psyche? These are questions that UCLA must hope are answered in the affirmative, but the business-like personality this USC team has taken on as its winning streak has grown seems to make those possibilities remote – as does the fact that the leadership of this Trojan team recalls the feeling of those recent losses to the Bruins.

If USC arrives focused, avoids getting wrapped up in a war of words or actions with a UCLA team that definitely plays to the proverbial echo of the whistle, and continues to execute on both sides of the ball, there should be a lot of happy folks clad in cardinal-and-gold on Saturday night.

USC 38, UCLA 20

 

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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