I know everyone wants to talk about Penn St. and the Rose Bowl, but that ain't important right now.
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel threw down the gauntlet before the season by proclaiming the Trojan dynasty in Los Angeles to be over! Basically, this is UCLA's bowl game (as usual).
So despite UCLA's 4 - 7 record, there are story-lines aplenty. Can Norm Chow devise anything to work against the Trojan defense? How many points will the Kevin Craft-led Bruin offense score for USC? Does Coach Neuheisel have anything left in his passion bucket?
Let's break this game down:
Offense - QB Kevin Craft should officially change the name on his jersey to "Pick Six" after last week's mis-adventures against Arizona St. Craft has thrown a whopping 19 interceptions and only seven touchdowns this season, while completing only 56-percent of his passes. Under his guidance, the Bruin offense ranks 110th in college football.
UCLA's offensive line and running backs, however, have been no help to Craft. The offensive line has led the Bruins' rushing game to a paltry 86 yards per game, and given up 35 sacks. Oft-injured running back Kahlil Bell is the leading rusher with only 394 yards on 2.8 yards per carry with seven touchdowns this season.
Wide receiver Terrence Austin leads the team with 49 receptions, but he only has one touchdown catch on the year. Other solid wide receivers include Taylor Embree and the 6'5" Dominique Johnson, who have combined for 70 receptions this season. TE Ryan Moya is a frequent target for QB Craft—Moya has three touchdowns and 38 receptions on the season.
Defense - This unit has kept UCLA in plenty of ball games this year, primarily with a pass defense that ranks second in the country (158 yards per game). Cornerbacks Alteraun Verner and Michael Norris have done a solid job in coverage, breaking up nearly 30 passes between them.
UCLA's run defense hasn't been good statistically, giving up 166 yards per game (eighth in the Pac-10). But the Bruin defensive line is solid. Defensive tackles Brigham Harwell and Brian Price have chalked up 19 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season. Defensive ends Akeem Ayers and Korey Bosworth are both light, but they have decent quickness. Bosworth leads the team in sacks with 7.5. Active linebacker Reggie Carter leads the team in tackles this season.
Special Teams - Wide receiver Terrence Austin is solid as both the punt and kickoff return man. He has not returned a punt or kickoff for a TD this year, though.
The kicking game is strong. Kicker Kai Forbath is one of the most accurate field goal kickers from distance—making 19-22 field goals, including 5-6 from 40+ yards. Punter Aaron Perez is averaging 44.5 yards per punt.
Hidden Stat: UCLA is minus-11 in the turnover margin department, giving up the ball 28 times this season, while forcing only 17 turnovers.
Offense - After a nice string of turnover-less games, QB Mark Sanchez threw two interceptions last week versus Notre Dame. He bounced back well after those mistakes, but he needs to take care of the ball against UCLA, so he does not give them extra possessions.
The Trojans' running game is humming right along at 205 yards per game. SC must be ready to adjust if UCLA run blitzes its linebackers up the middle, and moves a safety into the "box" (a la 2006). Running and/or passing plays on the perimeter to guys like Joe McKnight and Ronald Johnson will be a must if this happens.
In my opinion, SC will also see some man-to-man coverage on productive wide receivers Damian Williams and Patrick Turner. UCLA's pass defense has been excellent, and they are comfortable leaving their cornerbacks on an island with wide receivers.
Defense- At the top of nearly every defensive category in college football, USC's front (7) defenders are licking their chops watching UCLA game film. The Trojans' defense should overwhelm a Bruins' offensive line that doesn't protect its QB, nor open running lanes.
Turnover prone QB Craft also holds onto the ball too long, going through his progressions, resulting in sacks. I would expect UCLA's offensive coordinator Chow to move the pocket for Craft, and give him quick three-step drop passing plays.
The Trojans' cornerbacks and strong safety (Will Harris) will need to be "up" in pass coverage to take away those short passing routes, and make Craft look for his second and third receiver options. By that time, defensive linemen Kyle Moore, Fili Moala, and Clay Matthews should be closing like a vice on Craft.
Trojan linebackers (especially strong side OLB Brian Cushing) will need to be physical with Bruin TE Ryan Moya to not allow him a clean release off the line of scrimmage. And they also need to watch a decently mobile QB Craft on scrambles.
Special Teams - I look for Trojan punt returners Stafon Johnson or Joe McKnight to have plenty of opportunities in this game. The kickoff returners (Gable and Ronald Johnson) ...not so much.
Kicker David Buehler has an amazing 43 touchbacks on kickoffs this year. And hopefully, punter Greg Woidneck will get good hang time on his punts, if he continues to kick them only 37-39 yards.
Hidden Stat: The Trojan pass defense has only given up three touchdowns through the air this year in 11 games.
USC - 34
UCLA - 3