Fire and Ice. One hot. One cold. One team on the rise, the other in search of an identity. An offensive juggernaut versus an offensive offense. One dynamic head coach in command of his team, the other wondering where he belongs on his own sideline. The list comparing the two includes legendary mascots, song leaders and bands for one and stuffed teddy bears in Hawaiian shirts for the other. USC versus Ucla, one of the classic rivalries in college football, but thanks to the boys in blue, maintaining the game's integrity and the nation's attention, has required the use of smoke and mirrors.
Between the two schools, Ucla holds a record eight game win streak; quite
an accomplishment considering USC's traditional dominance in the Pac Ten and
nation. The Bruins followed that
with outstanding recruiting classes and truly seemed to take hold of
The Bruins had their chance to contend for their second national championship – that's one per century for those paying attention – but fumbled it away when players' egos and political agendas became bigger than the team. That opened the door to a house, once occupied only by SC and the Trojans charged in. It got so bad for the Bruins, they let a geek beat them to a pulp and swing the recruiting wars. Then, smelling blood in the water, the Trojans got serious. They hired a coach nobody wanted, especially Joe Blow, and with a clandestine move pulled the wool over the Bruins eyes. They never saw the knock out punch coming.
Four wins later and
USC a football school, Ucla a basketball school. That was always the way throughout my youth. Terry Donahue, despite being rode out on a rail by Bruin alumni, did his best to convert the gutty little Bruins into a contender by bringing in solid recruiting classes and running a clean, respectable program. But respectability without championships was not good enough. So, Peter Dalis went coach shopping. In my mind, it was at this point that Ucla had a chance to put themselves squarely on the map. Hire a high profile coach, put him in the hottest market in the nation and watch him go. But no, Peter's move was…his own offensive coordinator.
Bob Toledo was brought in and with him came the towel guy (a man I made
fun of last year but is about to become the only coach on the Bruin staff with a
solid winning record in recent history), two ten win seasons, a shot at the
National Championship, and the adoration of high school players and sports
writers alike. SC should've been
done right there. Ucla had the
It's the 73rd meeting in this classic between USC and UCLA, with the
winner getting year-long bragging rights and possession of the Victory
Bell. The 92,000-seat
The Bruins are adrift in another November malaise, while the Trojans are champions of their own destiny. Vegas has already anointed a winner, giving USC a 22 point advantage and in looking at both teams' performance throughout the year, it's hard to argue with the experts. But, when one takes a second look at the personnel from both teams, one finds some interesting matchups and just a few reasons to think this might be another classic.
Ucla's strength this year has been its defense. And it is only through their defense that Ucla will find themselves in, at most, the first half of Saturday's game against the Trojans. But like a person suffering from partial paralysis, they have been handicapped by a non-functioning limb diagnosed as…their offense.
New Bruin head coach, Karl Dorrell, as he put it "drank the kool-aid" and bought off on a system that is simply not suited to college football – the NFL's version of the West Coast offense. As a person who watched former USC coach Paul Hackett try to force feed this system, intended for professionals who are devoted to learning it on a full-time basis, I can say with authority… Karl better put the bottle down.
College football players are not at their schools long enough to master the system, nor do they have the time even when they are there. It's a system that requires timing and perfect execution to work. Pairing it down or simplifying it to be understood, ends up like de-boning a fish – causing it to lose its shape and structure. The result is a team that looks out of sync, can barely execute in practice without the pressure of a real defense bearing down, and does move the ball but not without a plethora of mistakes and miscues. It ends up, unless your defense saves the day, in losses. Ucla, now in the meat of their schedule and against the few quality opponents they've faced, are finding that out. Because of that, it has become their defense's charge to keep it close and hope for a miracle. Luckily for the Bruins, they have enough talent on that side of the ball to do that against most. They might, if the turnover gods are with them, be lucky enough to do the same against the Trojans. With players like Dave Ball, his brother Matt, Rodney Leisle (you've got to be one tough s.o.b growing up with a name like Leisle), Matt Ware, Jarrad Page and three very athletic linebackers and a very good defensive coordinator in Larry Kerr, that's exactly what coach Dorrell is hoping for. He can talk offense all he wants but his team will be on life-support fifteen minutes into the game, if his defense can't hold the game together.
Starting quarterback Drew Olsen has said that he sees weaknesses in the Trojan secondary. He also thinks his offensive line, who have looked more like doormen at the Biltmore than anything resembling men of steel, play better against super-athletic, multi-talented defensive fronts because of the latter's brand of aggressive play. Okay, I guess I follow, better take another sip of that Kool-aid Karl was so nice to pass around. By the way, I won't mention the journalist' name, but when Karl brought Starbucks to his latest press conference, it wasn't coffee in those cups. I digress; I was saying that young Mr. Olsen sees hope in the Trojan's defense. Luckily for Trojan fans, so does Pete Carroll. He just has a slightly more educated perspective.
Frankly put, the Bruin defense will keep Ucla in the game. I should, however, define "in the game." To me it means the Trojans may not put up fifty-two points this year. Instead we might see something more in the high thirties to low forties. But despite this fantastic effort by the Bruin defense, their offense simply, again underlined, may not score.
USC has already pitched two shut outs this season against far more talented offenses than the Bruins can field and the Bruins have yet to play a team as well balanced as USC. Stop the moaning. I didn't forget about the beating the Bruins took in Norman (a game they like to say they were in, until three fatal punt returns, but I think just gave Ucla the ball back quicker for potential scores of their own,) or the embarrassment they suffered through in Pullman. It was this later loss, filled with mistakes for Ucla's offense, that defined why Dorrell's scheme is just too much for a college team to handle. It is also this game that provides the best look into SC's matchup with the Bruins.
SC had their hands full through the first half with
It's hard for a team to understand the pass catching and
route running skills of a Mike Williams and a Keary Colbert, the animal-like
ferocity of an SC defensive line, the sky-high punts of a sophomore phenom named
Malone and the sheer power and speed that comprise "The Committee," until they
have witnessed it first hand. Some
come away, pretending to be less than impressed but the numbers never lie. The Trojans have the sort of talent
National Champions are made of.
Winning this game is an essential step toward that goal. And it appears that SC is ready to do
what the Bruins could not against
It will be every young man's charge, who dons the Cardinal and Gold, to
do their part to complete this journey.
Without them, it could not be attained. But, in my eyes, it is the Trojan
coaching staff that is the key ingredient to USC's success. They have been the difference makers all
season and will be that, once again this Saturday when USC squares up against
their cross-town nemesis. I have
said it a thousand times so I suppose once more won't hurt. This is the best all around staff ever
to coach at the
This game should be a mismatch, but because it is a rivalry it tempts one to throw the "on paper" analysis out the window. Walk-ons, kickers and former quarterbacks turned tight end only to go under center again, have all been unlikely heroes in games gone by. Every man who has had the honor of playing this game, regardless their side of the field, as well as the fans who have witnessed the phantom fumbles to miracle catches, has a story to tell. This year should be no different. It may not be close but that doesn't mean it won't be a thriller.
I like SC in this one, but maybe not as much as the odds makers.
34 Ucla 16