UCLA's 5 Keys to the Game vs. Southern Cal
The crosstown showdown between the No. 17 UCLA Bruins and the No. 18 Southern Cal Trojans this Saturday will go a long way in determining whether the Bruins program has turned the proverbial corner.
This is the first time since 2001 that UCLA is ranked ahead of Southern Cal at this point in the season. The winner of this contest will effectively book its passage to the Pac-12 Championship game and thus win the South Division in the process.
Let's take a look at five keys to the game for the Bruins against the Trojans.
What: No. 18 Southern Cal Trojans vs. No. 17 UCLA Bruins
Where: Rose Bowl
When: 12:00 p.m. PT
How: The game will be televised on FOX
Pressure Matt Barkley
Matt Barkley has had somewhat of a weird season.
On one hand, the senior from Mater Dei High School has thrown for 2,972 yards and 33 touchdowns. He will most likely finish the year with All-Conference honors and will be a relatively high draft pick.
On the other hand, he's failed to live up to the hype heading into this year. Before the season began, Barkley was projected to be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and also was expected to lead this team to a possible national championship.
That hasn't happened this year.
It probably was a mistake to come back this year. Barkley would have been a first round pick last season. This year, his draft stock has dropped considerably, and his limitations as a player have been somewhat magnified.
Barkley has shown the propensity to make poor decisions this year—as evidenced by 13 interceptions on the season (which is among the most in the conference).
When pressured, Barkley seemingly is thrown, and it more often than not results in forced throws and turnovers. UCLA's defensive line should be able to have its way with Southern Cal's offensive line.
Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh have had strong seasons, while Anthony Barr has been a force off of the edge. If Southern Cal can protect well, Barkley will have a field day against the Bruins' secondary.
If UCLA can get pressure consistently, it could be problematic for Barkley. Southern Cal's quarterback is a below-average athlete, so UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos can call an aggressive game plan without the worry of Barkley taking off and scrambling to evade pressure.
Utilize Joe Fauria
If there's such thing as an "X-Factor" on offense for UCLA in this contest, it comes in the form of senior TE Joe Fauria.
Fauria presents match-up problems for any team that he faces. His 6'8" frame makes him extremely hard to stop in the red zone, and his combination of height and wingspan allows him to snatch the ball out of the air at its high point.
Against Southern Cal, Fauria should be targeted early and often on drag routes that exploit the area behind the Trojans linebackers. With outside 'backers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard being somewhat undersized, Fauria should be able to use his size effectively.
It's no secret that Fauria's effectiveness comes heavily in the red zone. He leads the Bruins with nine touchdown grabs on the year and is targeted multiple times a game on fades and slants in the end zone.
Know Where Marqise Lee Is
Know where Marqise Lee is.
That simple statement cannot be stressed enough heading into this game.
The wide receiver from Serra High School in Gardena, Calif. is NFL ready as a sophomore. Even UCLA head coach Jim Mora believes Lee can be an impact player at the next level—comparing him to Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans.
Lee is having a phenomenal season statistically, and there's no question that he's sitting firmly in the Heisman Trophy discussion. For the year, Lee has 98 catches for 1,447 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Southern Cal likes to employ Lee all over the field—whether it's in the slot, on the perimeter or even in the backfield during "Wildcat" formations.
It's no secret that UCLA's secondary hasn't had the best season. Aaron Hester is flagged for a personal foul penalty (usually of the pass interference variety) almost every single game, while Sheldon Price has had his troubles in coverage as well.
It's imperative that the Bruins bracket Lee and minimize the opportunity for him to break a big play. Dually, UCLA needs to tackle well on the perimeter. Lee has the innate ability to take a five-yard pattern and turn it into a 40-yard big play, so needless to say, tackling is a must.
Should the Bruins choose to press Lee at the line of scrimmage, it would be smart to have help over the top in the form of a safety. Regardless, expect Barkley to test the Bruins secondary early and often down the field.
Run the Ball Effectively
Southern Cal has had some trouble stopping the run this season—allowing 148 yards per game on the ground. Much of that stems from the team starting three completely new players from a year ago on the defensive line.
Starting defensive end Morgan Breslin was a junior college transfer, defensive tackle George Uko had limited experience heading into the season and the other starting defensive tackle, Leonard Williams, is a true freshman.
The Trojans defense also has a propensity to be victimized by running quarterbacks. Last week against Arizona State, Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly had success via the zone read.
With that in mind, it shouldn't come as a shock to see UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley also operate some in zone read packages. Hundley has demonstrated impressive scrambling ability throughout the year, and that could be an aspect of the game to which Southern Cal has no answer for.
In addition, Johnathan Franklin—UCLA's all-time leading rusher—resides in the backfield.
From Southern Cal's perspective, Monte Kiffin's defense has to tackle well. Franklin gets a large chunk of his yards after contact. If Franklin gets in a rhythm early, that could spell trouble for the Trojans. Conversely, it would behoove Southern Cal if it can shut down the Bruins run game, making a freshman quarterback beat them in the air.
In regards to UCLA, a strong running game early will help to take pressure off Hundley. It'll also open up things all over the field for the Bruins.
The strength of UCLA's offensive line resides in the interior with Jeff Baca, Jake Brendel and Xavier Su'a-Filo. The trio should have an advantage against Williams and Uko.
Battle of the Intangibles
In some ways, this game means more to UCLA than it does to Southern Cal.
For one thing, Jim Mora is trying to not only validate the Bruins' football program, but also the brand of UCLA football. In recruits' eyes, UCLA football hasn't had much appeal for some time.
Southern Cal has dominated the city of Los Angeles—winning 12 of the past 13 years. This year, however, the Trojans have massively underachieved. Lane Kiffin's team began the season ranked as the top team in the nation and has failed to uphold those lofty expectations.
The winner of this game will represent the South Division in the Pac-12 Championship game. A win here for the Trojans would set up in all likelihood a second duel against Oregon.
For the Bruins? A win would not only send UCLA to its second Pac-12 Championship appearance in a row, but it could signal a "corner turning" moment.
The crowd should be electric, and for the first time in a long time, we could see more blue than red in the Rose Bowl.
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