Forget the 2010 season.
Forget the widespread injuries on both sides of the ball. Forget the off-field incidents and ensuing suspensions. Finally, forget the oft-backfiring Pistol offense.
When the UCLA Bruins host crosstown rival USC Trojans at the Rose Bowl on Dec. 4, Bruin fans need to purge the failures of their football team’s final season in the Pac-10 before the conference expands in 2011. Although their postseason hopes are shot, a great deal still lies at stake for the powder blue and gold.
In an effort to spare you clichés about “city dominance” in a down year for both programs, UCLA should instead focus on the fact that mighty USC looks especially vulnerable this year.
After losing 10 scholarships per season through 2012 as part of the sanctions handed down from the NCAA resulting from the fallout from the Reggie Bush investigation, USC doesn’t have the same recruiting juice it did a year ago. Many recruits that shortlist ‘SC atop their choices often point to the benefits of attending university and playing football in Los Angeles.
If UCLA steals the show on Saturday and beats the Trojans, don’t be shocked to see some prep athletes with a verbal commitment to ‘SC feel a change of heart, and consider Bruinhood instead.
Highly-touted freshman safety Dietrich Riley chose UCLA over USC, and could help coach Rick Neuheisel in efforts to steer players who are undecided between the two L.A.-based schools towards Westwood.
With the prospect of luring top Trojan recruits to the 310 at stake, let’s take a look at some of the reasons the Bruins actually have a decent shot at beating ‘SC this time around.
USC on the Ropes
After winning their previous two games over the Arizona schools by a total of four points, the Trojans lost their most recent pair of games to Oregon State and Notre Dame by a combined 33 points.
Southern Cal fans could have easily envisioned a defeat resulting from an onerous trip to Corvallis, but to lose for the first time in eight years to a Fighting Irish program that fell to Navy and Tulsa is unforgivable by USC’s standards.
UCLA, a program that has lost five of its last six games, is also reeling from a disappointing 2010 season. Although the Bruins just surrendered a season-high 55 points and 380 passing yards to Arizona State and backup QB Brock Osweiler respectively, they will be facing a gimpier signal caller in Matt Barkley in Pasadena.
Barkley was bent the wrong way on a sack against the Beavers on Nov. 20 and was forced to miss the Notre Dame contest with a high ankle sprain. The Trojan offense suffered without the talented sophomore under center, but Barkley vowed to return for the UCLA game, even if he’s not taking all the first-team reps in practice leading up to the game.
If Barkley plays hurt, he could be one hit from returning to the trainer’s table. If Bruin defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough can dial up sufficient pressure on the starting Trojan QB, perhaps UCLA can force an encore swan song from fifth-year senior Mitch Mustain, the Arkansas transfer who failed to impress on Senior Night at the Coliseum in the loss to the underdog Irish on Nov. 27.
Slick Rick: 1…Coach Lane: 0
When Neuheisel and Trojan head coach Lane Kiffin last faced off in 2009, Kiffin was in his first (and last) year as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Although the Vols were favored heading into the matchup in Knoxville, the Bruin defense collected three interceptions, and held Tennessee to 93 yards passing and a meager 2.6 yards per rushing attempt in a 19-15 upset.
Their won-loss records may be similar, but USC has more talented athletes on its roster that last year’s Volunteer squad and presents more matchup problems on both sides of the ball. UCLA will have to contain downfield threats like playmaking freshman wideout Robert Woods, as well as talented senior Ronald Johnson, who will be playing his last college game.
Sophomore cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price will have their hands full on Saturday slowing down Woods and Johnson, and will need extra help from safeties Rahim Moore, Tony Dye and freshman Dietrich Riley to avoid getting burned deep.
Assuming Barkley is less than 100 percent as expected, then Bullough should expect the Trojans to lean on the running game to move the chains, control time of possession and wear down the Bruins’ front seven.
Marc Tyler, senior Allen Bradford, and the imposing cadre of ‘SC running backs should expect to be a significant part of the offense against the Bruins.
Regardless of the disparity in talent between the Trojans and Bruins, Neuheisel has proven that he can outscheme Kiffin for 60 minutes. If Kiffin is unprepared for Neuheisel’s game plan like last year, then UCLA could shock the nation by trumping the Trojans.
Brehaut Moves the Chains, For a Change
His performance may have been in a losing effort, but UCLA quarterback Richard Brehaut finally posted some decent passing statistics that brought some balance to the Bruin offense.
Against the Sun Devils on Nov. 26, the sophomore threw for 321 yards along with three touchdowns and an interception. Furthermore, he produced 19 total first downs, and posted a passer rating of 121.18. This type of production will be necessary to keep the Trojan defense from bringing in extra defensive backs to the line of scrimmage to cheat against the run.
Should offensive coordinator Norm Chow continue a departure from the pistol towards a more traditional scheme that features more passing, we will continue to witness Brehaut’s maturation towards a more reliable signal caller, which could pay serious dividends in 2011.
Pride, Schmide: USC Has Nothing Left to Play For
Although they’re favored by almost a touchdown at UCLA, the Trojans are in the unfamiliar position of having no prospective bowl game to play for this season.
With five losses already tarnishing their record, USC can’t even enter the conversation of finishing out the season as a member of the Associated Press’ Top-25 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, let alone Pac-10 champions.
Now that all of their home games are behind them, Southern Cal will have to rely on faithful constituents of Trojan Nation, who will surely be peppered throughout the Rose Bowl on Saturday amid the Bruin faithful, to cheer on the Cardinal and Gold in a lost season.
Both Lane, as well as his father, ‘SC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, are known to be great motivators, but the reality exists that the Trojans may come out flat with minimal inspiration left for 2010. While UCLA upsetting USC is cause for excessive jubilation in Westwood, beating UCLA is merely expected in Heritage Hall.
The Bruins trail USC all-time in the football matchup 28-42-7, but the unusual circumstances surrounding this year’s contest render the situation ripe for an upset.
Furthermore, the Bruins have a proverbial axe to grind after being humiliated towards the end of last year’s face-off.
Revenge for Running Up Score Last Year
You may remember the way last year's UCLA vs. USC game ended, and it surely makes UCLA loyalists mad to think about.
After being mad for over a year, it’s time to get even.
With 54 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the UCLA vs. USC game last Nov. 28, Neuheisel called time out in spite of the fact that ‘SC was up 21-7. Although The Trojans had the game in hand, CRN wanted to send a message to his team to never surrender, especially to your crosstown rival. Instead of having Barkley take a knee to kill the remaining time on the clock, then-head coach Pete Carroll called a play-action deep pass that resulted in a 48-yard touchdown.
This supposed slap-in-the-face to Bruin Nation was met with a mixed reaction.
Although UCLA loyalists felt incensed that a superior program in USC would run up the score, followed by incessant laughing at and mocking of the Bruins from the Trojan sideline which nearly resulted in a postgame brawl, CRN took the high road when commenting on Carroll’s controversial play call after the game:
"Our job is to cover, and they have every right to throw deep," Neuheisel said of the scoring play to Damian Williams. "People can make their own conclusions. Our job is to stop the play...I don't blame (USC) for doing it."
Bruin Nation can only hope their team can administer some retribution against the downtrodden Trojans this time around.