USC Trojans vs. UCLA Bruins: Complete Game Preview
There's a storm brewing in Los Angeles, the result of a season's worth of struggles, successes, accomplishments and disappointments. On Saturday, the clouds will open up and all the tension and hostility will rain down on the field of the Coliseum until only one team is left standing.
It's about bragging rights. It's about getting ahead on the recruiting trail. It's about giving their respective fanbases the right to claim Los Angeles as theirs for the next year. It's about completing the season in the most satisfying way possible: beating their crosstown rivals.
But this year, there's something more.
Enter the No. 23 USC Trojans, a team that looked as if it would absolutely implode seven weeks ago but is now 9-3 and undefeated in Pac-12 play under interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Add the No. 22 UCLA Bruins to the mix, a team that started the season with lofty expectations of reaching Pasadena but has shown some great signs of weakness down the stretch.
These two teams started in very different places back in August but find themselves on a level playing field as Saturday approaches. For the Trojans, a win means reestablishing itself as the team in Los Angeles, while relegating the Bruins to the role of little brother once more. For UCLA, a win means continuing to shift the power dynamic in the city, proving that last year wasn't a fluke.
This year more than ever, to the victor will most definitely go the spoils.
It's USC. It's UCLA. It's Rivalry Week!
KICKOFF: 5 p.m. PT
PLACE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Radio: 710 ESPN (USCTrojans.com will also carry the live stream)
Spread: USC (-4) according to VegasInsider.com
USC Keys to Victory
For USC to win this game, controlled passion is key. Much like against Stanford, this is a big game for the Trojans with big implications. It's important that they keep emotions in check as they prepare for this game, and don't get caught up in the hype and trash talk that has swirled incessantly over not just this week, but the entire season.
Another thing the Trojans absolutely need to do is maintain and flourish with the pass rush. UCLA's offensive line, comprised mostly of relatively inexperienced freshman, will be the only thing keeping the Trojan defensive line from getting to Brett Hundley. If the Trojans can get around the edge and keep Hundley uncomfortable all night, the defense will very effectively limit the Bruins' productivity through the air.
More to that point, USC will look to dominate the line of scrimmage against UCLA. The Trojan defense has a huge advantage over the Bruins, and if they can set the tone early, USC can mentally defeat UCLA from the opening snaps. This game will be won in the trenches, and USC has the advantage there.
Lastly, mixing it up offensively will be another crucial key in the Trojans' game plan. Against Colorado (and in all of its wins under Orgeron, for that matter), we saw USC employ runs, play-action passes as well as the occasional Wildcat and shotgun formation. This week, that kind of offensive diversity will be paramount to the Trojans' ability to score at will.
UCLA Keys to Victory
If UCLA wants to be competitive this week, maintaining momentum is very important. We have seen UCLA start games strong and then taper out, as well as come out completely flat before having a strong, second-half rally. USC is no longer a team that one can be hot and cold against; if you give the offense an inch, it will take a mile, and on the other side of the ball, the defense will shut you down. The Bruins absolutely have to play an entire four quarters if they want to beat the Trojans.
From there, giving Hundley ample protection will be the Bruins offensive line's first task. The O-line has been hampered by injuries, which will make this particular task kind of difficult. UCLA struggled against Stanford, another team that is strong up front. Hundley is at his best when he has time to throw or time to scramble, and doing so against the Trojan D-line will be no easy task. If his offensive line does not give Hundley time to get his feet going or get them set—and we know USC will do everything in its power to prevent that—UCLA will struggle greatly on Saturday.
Lastly, UCLA needs to contain the Trojan horses and neutralize USC's running game. The Trojans rotate running backs like crazy, and Buck Allen, Tre Madden and Ty Isaac have proven to be a handful. Silas Redd has been in and out with injury, but even without him, USC's ground game has flourished. The Trojans are going to look to punch UCLA in the mouth early, but if the Bruin defense—especially its talented linebackers like Anthony Barr—can curtail the run game, they will be in good shape.
USC Players to Watch
Cody Kessler: Much like against Stanford, USC's quarterback will need to be a field general on Saturday. The offense's success will be dictated by how he plays, and over the past seven weeks, he has really grown both as a leader of this team and as a quarterback. In November, Kessler has completed 72.8 percent of his passes, has thrown eight touchdowns and only one interception. He has a QB rating of 162.6 this month and has really developed under offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton and Orgeron. This is Kessler's final chance to prove that he has become a man and is ready to be the future of the program.
The entire defense: As previously mentioned, this game will be won in the trenches, and USC has the advantage. Up front, the Trojans need to fluster the Bruins and contain linebacker-turned-running back, Myles Jack. The freshman two-way star has been shredding teams of late, and USC will want to take him out of the game early. Furthermore, the Trojan secondary, which continues to struggle through injuries, needs to be reliable. We know Bruin QB Brett Hundley can really throw; if USC's cornerbacks give soft coverage or just get flat out burned on a play, UCLA will have a field day picking them apart.
Buck Allen/The Stable: Buck Allen doing Buck Allen-like things will be a staple of USC's game plan on Saturday. If the Bruins allow him to, he will punish them with big plays, plays that will rile up the Coliseum home crowd and deflate the visiting UCLA one. The tone he sets for the running game must be carried out through all four quarters, and the supporting cast members of Tre Madden, Ty Isaac and (probably) Silas Redd will need to carry their weight, as well, when called upon. To be sure, UCLA's linebackers are some of the best in the nation. But with so many big-bodied, bruising backs, UCLA's defense will have its hands full trying to slow them down. Plus, the Bruins gave up 223 yards on the ground last week to the Arizona State Sun Devils, which suggests Allen might not have too much trouble putting the moves on them.
UCLA Players to Watch
Brett Hundley: Hundley is without question the heart and soul of UCLA's offense. As goes Hundley, so goes the rest of the Bruins' scoring strategy. Like Kessler, Hundley has had a pretty good November: He's completed 70.1 percent of his passes for 912 yards and eight touchdowns. He has only thrown one pick this month and will want to avoid placing the ball where the sticky hands of Trojans Dion Bailey and Su'a Cravens can get to it. If he can stay on his feet and play like he did in the second half of UCLA's game against Arizona State, the Bruins will be in good shape.
Myles Jack: Ever since injury problems forced Jack to move over to the offensive side of things, he has been phenomenal for UCLA. In his debut against the Arizona Wildcats, he had six carries for 120 yards and a touchdown. Since then, he's gobbled up 145 more yards and five more touchdowns. He's no Buck Allen, but he is certainly a big threat to the Trojans defense. Furthermore, since the coaching staff is relying on him heavily for the offense, it will be interesting to note how the defense's play suffers without him.
Offensive Line: Hundley and Jack won't be able to be themselves if the Bruin O-line doesn't create moments for them. With so many freshmen up front now because of injuries, this unit could be a real liability and a breaking point for the Bruins on Saturday. They still have Xavier Su'a-Filo up front, and he's lining up as a left tackle instead of a guard because said injuries. Look for him to be a pillar of the O-line on Saturday, and if he can protect Hundley, the Bruins can breathe a little easier. This week, they will need to work on stiffening up to face USC's dominant D-line. The hope of UCLA beating the Trojans in back-to-back seasons lives and dies with how well the O-line can hold up.
What They Are Saying
UCLA QB Brett Hundley discusses the significance of the rivalry with Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times:
"How much the UCLA-Southern Cal game changes things is amazing," Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley said. "To our fans, this game every year is it. We could do nothing all year and win this game and it would still be a successful season to them."
Bleacher Report's Kyle Kensing dishes on how important the rivalry is to the Los Angeles sports market:
Los Angeles' significance for the conference is evident every summer when, before the season, Pac-12 media day is hosted there. It's the nation's, and thus conference's, media epicenter. With the UCLA-USC rivalry showing signs of becoming one of the nation's most competitive, Los Angeles could become the epicenter for all of college football.
A renewed significance to the Bruins' and Trojans' crosstown rivalry gives this year's installment a much different aura the series has lacked for more than two decades. UCLA dominated throughout the 1990s, winning every game from 1991 to 1998. The start of a new millennium marked a new era of dominance, as USC's reign over the conference included 12 wins in 13 meetings from 1999 through 2011.
Garry Paskwietz of ESPNLA.com muses about what a win would mean for either program:
It’s not to say that a victory over the other team in this rivalry can make up for any problems in a season, but it sure goes a long way. If you’re a Trojan, a season just can’t be considered a complete success unless it includes a victory over UCLA. On the other hand, the Bruins went 7-6 in 2006 but it included a victory over USC that knocked the Trojans out of the national title game. You can imagine that one went over quite well in Westwood.
USC wins 31-21.
The Trojans are on an uptick while the Bruins are trending downward, and this game will only reinforce that point. If Ed Orgeron really wants to be taken seriously as an option for the head coaching job, then this game is a must-win for him.
The USC fans and boosters alike will accept nothing less, and with the way USC has been playing under him, expecting the Trojans to win is not a stretch. They are the better team top to bottom but should not take lightly the threats of Brett Hundley, Myles Jack and Anthony Barr. However, the Trojan defense has enough size and talent to corral Hundley and Jack, keeping Bruin points off the board while the USC offense goes to work lighting up the scoreboard in their favor. It will be a close, hard-fought game, but the better team will come away with the victory.
In doing so, USC will finish out the season undefeated in conference play under Orgeron, will post a 10-win season and will go into the postseason in good spirits.