Los Angeles football supremacy is up for grabs Saturday in a way rarely seen in the UCLA-USC rivalry, and the streaking Trojans are positioned to reestablish their claim on the city.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora knows the implications of Saturday's contest.
"The town is very divided. There's a lot of pride that goes with being a Bruin or being a Trojan," he said.
The past year's been good for UCLA, which enjoyed the spoils of being on the right side of he divide. The Bruins beat rival USC for the first time since 2006 last November, 38-28, clinching the Pac-12 South division title and the program's most wins since the 2005 campaign.
Though he didn't play in last year's loss, USC quarterback Cody Kessler told Associated Press reporter Greg Beacham he knows all too well the sting that comes with dropping the rivalry.
Cody Kessler: "You never want to lose to a rival because you hear about it the whole year. And we heard about it."— Greg Beacham (@gregbeacham) November 27, 2013
That win on its own isn't enough for UCLA to turn a series that has largely been one-sided for over a decade. But under Mora, the Bruins have made further inroads to challenging the status quo.
"[Mora has] brought the toughness back to [UCLA's] football team," USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron said on his weekly video address.
The rivalry is heated, but Mora and Orgeron each recognize what the other's accomplished. Since Orgeron took over on Sept. 29 and coached his first game on Oct. 10, the Trojans are 6-1—a perfect 6-0 against Pac-12 competition. Mora acknowledged the remarkable turnaround by casting his vote for Pac-12 Coach of the Year for Orgeron.
There's respect there, sure. But that takes a backseat to winning, and what it means to claiming the city's spotlight.
Mora followed his successful debut season at UCLA with an impressive recruiting class, which included one-time USC verbal commitment and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who will start opposite the Trojans Saturday.
Vanderdoes is just one example of a level of familiarity Mora said is central to the rivalry's mystique. Though Vanderdoes is from Northern California, many of the other players on both sides Saturday are products of the surrounding California Interscholastic Federation Los Angeles and Southern Section high schools.
"A lot of these guys know each other...from playing in the Snoop [Youth Football] League and Pop Warner," Mora said.
The local pedigrees add to the divided city theme of Saturday's contest. And make no mistake, the outcome resonates in Los Angeles.
Conquering the Trojans is looking like a much more cumbersome task heading into rivalry week than it did just two months ago.
As a member of the USC coaching staff, Orgeron has lost to the Bruins twice: In 1998, his first year there as an assistant, and last season. He was on the sidelines for Trojans wins from 1999 through 2004, and again in 2010 and 2011, when USC firmly planted its sword into Los Angeles.
The renewed confidence with which USC is playing has the Trojans as 3.5-point favorites according to Las Vegas oddsmakers. Kessler is playing great at quarterback, connecting exceptionally well with wide receiver Nelson Agholor, a player Mora had high praise for on Tuesday.
Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee gashed the Bruins for 158 yards and a touchdown a season ago. Lee has battled injuries all season and skipped the team's trip to Colorado last week to recuperate, but he'll be in action Saturday. Lee was central to USC's upset of Stanford in Week 12.
Who wins Saturday's UCLA-USC rivalry game?
Add the dangerous receiving corps to a deep and talented run attack, and the USC offense has hit 31 points or more in three of its last four outings. Running back Buck Allen's emergence into a star continued last week with a 145-yard, three-touchdown showing at Colorado. He'll be tasked with occupying the Bruins' talented linebacker corps.
On the other side of the ball, Orgeron said UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley's elusiveness out of the pocket presented problems for the USC defense last season.
"We couldn't get him down," Orgeron said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
But with a young offensive line starting three true freshmen, Hundley is coming off a loss to Arizona State in which the Sun Devils got to him for a season-high nine sacks. The sophomore gets no reprieve this week against a Trojans defense ranked No. 11 nationally in sacks.
UCLA may have championship dreams in its immediate future, but with USC rejuvenated, the Bruins' road still goes through Troy.