WESTWOOD, Calif. — UCLA football is in an enviable position heading into the final two weeks of the 2014 regular season: out front of the five-team race in the Pac-12 South and in control of its conference championship destiny.
"I think right now we're playing our best football," wide receiver Jordan Payton said a week ago. "It feels good to be where we're at."
And that was before the No. 9 Bruins had a clear path to Levi's Stadium, site of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
UCLA got the help it needed last Saturday when Oregon State rallied to upset Arizona State. By virtue of their head-to-head win over the Sun Devils, as well as fellow two-loss team Arizona, the Bruins hold all the necessary tiebreakers—contingent on them winning the next two, that is.
Easier said than done. Coming into the Rose Bowl Saturday is No. 19 USC, one of those other four teams still running the divisional race and ranked in the College Football Playoff's latest standings.
|Pac-12 South in the College Football Playoff Rankings|
|Team||Rank||From Last Week||Pac-12 Record||Overall Record|
The Trojans broke into the rankings for the first time after two wins that demonstrated their diversity on both sides of the ball.
And it's that "extremely diverse" style, as UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich described it, that makes USC a difficult team for which to game-plan.
UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone broke from what he deemed "coach-speak day" following Wednesday's practice at Spaulding Field to theorize on USC's multifaceted defensive style.
"Still waiting to figure it out," he said. "I've known [USC's] Justin [Wilcox] for a while, and he's a really good [defensive] coordinator. Always comes up with a good game plan."
Heading into last week's matchup with Cal, much was made of the Trojans' hesitance to blitz. USC came into that game ranked last among power-conference teams in blitz plays but brought heavy pressure on Cal quarterback Jared Goff.
USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said on his conference call Friday that continuing to rush UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley would be an emphasis this week, but there's no clear pattern suggesting how the Trojans intend to do so.
Ulbrich faces a similar question mark while strategizing for USC's offense.
“The best of the pro-style stuff we’ve seen and the best of the spread [offense] stuff we’ve seen,” Ulbrich said. “We haven’t seen [an offense like USC’s]. I don’t know if it exists anywhere else. It’s the melding of minds over there…and they’re grabbing the best of both.”
Sarkisian introduced no-huddle play-calling to the Trojans’ traditional pro set offense and has tinkered with a variety of looks.
USC has relied heavily at times on the rush, with Pac-12-leading ball-carrier Javorius “Buck” Allen setting the pace at 118.4 yards per game.
But in its last two outings, USC quarterback Cody Kessler has thrown for 771 yards and nine touchdowns combined.
“He can get to his first, second and third read, which in college football, you don’t see every week,” Ulbrich said of Kessler. “And his third [receiving option], unlike most offenses, is a real [threat].”
In recent weeks, the third option for Kessler has been George Farmer, who has a touchdown catch in each of the last two games. But No. 1 target Nelson Agholor comes into Saturday’s affair with consecutive games of more than 200 yards receiving, a feat no other player in USC history has accomplished.
Indeed, USC is a team that can change its look from week-to-week. But UCLA can make a similar claim—and that’s the reason the Bruins are two wins from winning the hotly contested division.
To get this point that Payton described as feeling good, the Bruins overcame the disappointment of losing two straight in October.
Others may have hit the panic button, but UCLA rallied around head coach Jim Mora and his staff’s message of improving every week.
And while this Saturday’s contest is unique in any number of ways—it’s a quality opponent, a championship is at stake and, oh yeah, it’s a rivalry—the Bruins are not straying off the pace that got them out in front.
"We've had two good days of practice, and we've got a couple more days to clean some things up," Mazzone said. "Try to get a little better this week than we were last week."
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of CFBstats.com.