USC vs UCLA preview

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.

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 Los Angeles. What they failed to realize, despite every local sports journalist writing the Trojans' epitaph, is that this city is a fickle mistress.  She'll applaud you on your way to the top, but if you fail to grab the brass ring, she'll be out of your life without even one sweet goodbye.


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 Los Angeles sleeps in USC's bed. The Trojans, through this four game streak (about to become five) have marked a clear separation between the programs.  Call it a return to glory, personally I think the Trojans were more the victims of a couple unlucky bounces more than any sort of cross town dominance, but USC's head coach Pete Carroll has put Trojan football back on the map and left the Bruins hoping they might once again be able to resuccitate their basketball program.


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 Beverly Hills address, they had the city looking at them as the people's team – underdogs, Davids against Goliaths, and they had USC by the throat.  All they had to do was win one game… Miami.  Unfortunately for all those people supporting this banana republic, they also had a leader who was a smart coach but more a good guy.  He gave his kids respect and trusted them to make decisions for themselves and act in a manner that would support the school and the program.  That was his fatal mistake, for going into a nationally televised night game against the Hurricanes, the Bruin house was blown down.  Football was replaced with political agendas, team mentality was over-shadowed by the "I" concept and winning was replaced with one big loss.  That's all it took to turn an entire nation off.   It's gone steadily downhill since then and brings us this coming weekend's game. Because of all the above, it has become difficult for some to any longer call this game a rivalry but for me, a rivalry it is.


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 Coliseum--where Troy has won its past 13 games--is sold out.  The No. 2-ranked Trojans are looking to do something they've never done:  beat UCLA for 5 years in a row.  If they do, it will be just the second time ever that USC has swept their 2 traditional foes--the Bruins and Notre Dame--in consecutive years.


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 Washington State, but put the game away early in the third quarter.  The Cougars' defense played fast and hit hard but eventually wore down due to sustained, mistake free Trojan drives.  It is will most likely be the same for the Bruins this coming Saturday.  They'll be in it for a while, but one costly turnover coupled with a few too many three and outs, should be all it will take to give USC its fifth consecutive win against the Ucla. 


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 Miami – keep that fickle mistress, the city of Los Angeles, on the Trojans' side. 


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 University of Southern California.  It starts at the top and weaves its way down through every member of that staff, then through to each player in that coach's unit.  It is the inner desire to be the best, the Trojan Family knows as "Fight On" that drives these men.  It is their ambition and dedication, coupled with the best talent in the nation, that has returned USC to the national spotlight.  It is to them, Trojan fans everywhere owe a debt of gratitude.  It had been too long, but it's back and this team seems prepared to take it the distance.  Time will tell.


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.


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