With the Trojans' recent losses, the Bruins finally see an open door to reclaim L.A. Will USC be able to maintain its dominance in what promises to be a Saturday night roadhouse fistfight?
The USC Trojans (7-3, 4-3 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 20 in the BCS, No. 22 in the USA Today coaches' poll, and No. 24 by the Associated Press, continue their season-ending homestand this Saturday, November 28, against the crosstown-rival UCLA Bruins (6-5, 3-5) at 7 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of an FSN national cable audience. It is the 79th meeting in the rivalry, with USC owning a 43-28-7 edge. USC has won nine of the past 10 meetings, including a 28-7 victory at the Rose Bowl a season ago and a 24-7 decision in the last Coliseum meeting in 2007. This is the first night game in the series since 1977 and the first Thanksgiving weekend meeting since 1979.
A week ago, the Trojans rested and recouped following a shocking 55-21 defeat against Stanford at the Coliseum on Nov. 14. After entering the fourth quarter trailing by a touchdown, USC was outscored 27-0 by the Cardinal in an epic collapse that has caused much soul searching throughout the program and its fan base. Meanwhile, the Bruins spent last Saturday becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2007 by defeating Arizona State, 23-13, in Pasadena. It was UCLA's third consecutive victory after opening conference play with five straight defeats.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (95-18, 62-13 in the Pac-10), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, UCLA headman Rick Neuheisel (76-43 in 10 college seasons overall, 10-13 at UCLA) is in his second season in Westwood. After taking over a program that many felt had bare cupboards, Neuheisel's team struggled horribly in 2008, and it looked like the 2009 season was headed in the same direction after a Halloween loss at Oregon State dropped the Bruins to 0-5 in the conference. However, the emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince in recent weeks and the continued solid play of a veteran defense have allowed the Bruins to gain bowl consideration with wins over Washington, Washington State and ASU. Can they keep it rolling against the Trojans?
UCLA Offense Offensive coordinator Norm Chow has held firm from the start of spring workouts that redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Prince was the man for the Bruin starting job. After growing pains - and a couple of injury setbacks - that lasted well past the halfway point of the 2009 campaign, Prince has recently started to live up to Chow's hopes. While the Bruin offense spent much of the season's first eight games mired in mediocrity - and the team's offensive statistics show it (UCLA ranks eighth in the Pac-10 in total offense and ninth in rushing and scoring offense through 11 games) - Prince has come on strong since the start of the second half at Oregon State on Oct. 31. UCLA totaled 323, 371 and 324 yards through the air against the Beavers, Huskies and Cougars before a solid ASU defense held the Bruins to 161 yards passing last week. Not only has Prince looked stronger and more confident in the pocket recently, but his mobility has also become a positive factor for the Bruins in recent weeks.
That mobility has led to Prince ranking fourth on the team with 131 rushing yards. With 11 games already in the books, this is not necessarily a good thing. The Bruins have struggled to find consistency from their running back corps. While redshirt freshman Johnathan Franklin is the team's leading rusher with 532 yards, his problems with fumbles have hampered the UCLA offense. Similarly, sophomore Derrick Coleman has struggled to find consistency. This led to senior fullback Chane Moline gaining the bulk of the feature back work a week ago, when he gained just 84 yards in a (by far) career-high 25 carries. Franklin and Coleman were limited to spot duty against ASU, with Franklin getting a couple opportunities on screen passes early in the game. It will be interesting to see who gets the bulk of the work among UCLA's backs on Saturday night.
As Prince has grown up, so too have Bruin sophomore receivers Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario. Embree has 42 catches this season, averaging 13.4 yards and has scored twice. Meanwhile, the 6'5" Rosario has really blossomed in the past four games into Prince's main safety net. He's averaging 18.3 yards on 33 grabs this season - 21 of those in the past four games. A week ago against ASU, Rosario was the go-to receiver for UCLA on countless third-down situations. Senior flanker Terrence Austin has 31 grabs and leads the team with three TDs, but his productivity has flagged recently. Senior tight ends Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya have been key outlets as well, combining for 38 grabs on the season. Moline has 21 catches out of the backfield.
A year ago, the Bruin offensive line was a revolving door at almost every position. While UCLA's front five is a young group this year (and UCLA's rushing issues, as well as the 27 sacks allowed, confirm this youth), there are 11-game starters at four of the five spots - a huge improvement in continuity that bodes well for the Bruins' future. True freshman left tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo has joined sophomores Jeff Baca (LG), Kai Maiava (C) and RT Mike Harris to give the Bruins an emerging core. Only at right guard have injuries and other issues popped up. Junior Eddie Williams started the first six games before being lost to injury. Since then, senior Nick Ekbatani and juniors Ryan Taylor and Darius Savage have made starts. Taylor is back atop the depth chart this week, but don't be surprised to see any of the others, as well as junior utilityman Jake Dean, at the spot.
UCLA Defense When Chuck Bullough took over for the departed DeWayne Walker as defensive coordinator in January, he had to feel pretty fortunate. After all, it's not often that a defensive coordinator gets to start a new gig with an All-America-caliber defensive tackle, a fiery and talented team leader at middle linebacker, and an experienced senior shutdown cornerback. However, that's what Bullough inherited in Brian Price, Reggie Carter and Alterraun Verner. Those three, along with emerging stars in each position group, have helped UCLA lead the conference in scoring defense, tackles for loss, interceptions and turnover margin - enough to make up for a rush defense that has been suspect at times, especially during the Bruins' five-game slide at midseason.
Up front, future NFL first-rounder Price has been spectacular. His 20.5 tackles for loss (including seven sacks) lead the Pac-10 and rank third nationally. He is a one-man wrecking crew in the middle of the line, along the lines of past Trojan stars Mike Patterson and Sedrick Ellis. Price's play has opened the door for sophomore defensive end Datone Jones to have a breakthrough year. His 10 tackles for loss include three sacks. Senior tackle Jerzy Siewierski returned to the UCLA lineup a week ago after missing three games with an injury. A solid player, he has 26 stops. Classmate Jess Ward is a hard worker who will rotate in at tackle. Senior end Korey Bosworth is second on the team with 11 tackles for loss among his 47 stops.
Carter, a senior, is the heart and soul of the Bruin defense. He's faced a series of nagging injuries this year that have limited his practice time, but he always seems to be in the middle of the action on gameday. He's second on the team with 66 tackles, including eight for loss. The Bruins' leading tackler is senior weakside linebacker Kyle Bosworth, with 70, including six for loss. However, the future star here is the hyper-athletic Akeem Ayers, a 6'4", 252-lb. sophomore. Talk about filling up a stat sheet: Ayers has 57 tackles (10 for loss), six sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He's also scored two touchdowns, one on a pick and the other last week on a fumble return. Keep an eye out for No. 10 in blue on Saturday night.
Last Saturday, Verner closed out his UCLA home career the way he started it in his first home game as a freshman - with a pick-six. He has 63 tackles to go with his four interceptions. Across the way, slight true freshman Sheldon Price has grown on the job. Not a physical presence, Price has tried to make up for his lack of size with quickness. The experience he's gained this year will come in handy down the road. Redshirt freshman Aaron Hester was a starter at corner early on, and may actually play a key role this week for the first time since the Bruins' opener. Sophomore free safety Rahim Moore is the emerging star in this group. His nine interceptions lead the nation, and he also has 38 tackles. Sophomore Tony Dye has locked up the starting strong safety role and has 62 tackles, though classmate Glenn Love also sees plenty of time.
UCLA Special Teams UCLA is about as good in the kicking game as any team in the nation. It starts with junior placekicker Kai Forbath, who has made an astounding 26-of-29 field goals this season and has made his last 35 attempts from 50 yards and closer. Such have been the Bruins' touchdown-scoring issues that Forbath has attempted seven more field goals than PATs. Redshirt freshman Jeff Locke handles the punting and kickoff duties. Locke's 44.0 punting average leads the Pac-10 and ranks ninth nationally. He's also notched 18 touchbacks on 58 kickoffs. Austin handles the return duties, and is dangerous, averaging more than 25 yards on kick returns and about nine yards on punt returns.
USC Offensive Gameplan Two weeks ago in the Coliseum, it appeared to this reporter that the Trojan offense was designed to make life easy on the Stanford defense - a group that had been gashed by inside rushing and passing attacks that exploited the middle of the field on intermediate and deep routes. What did we see from the Trojans against Stanford? Mostly, more side-to-side football and an early (and, in the end, detrimental) fascination with getting the ball in Joe McKnight's hands on what - at one point in the first half - seemed like a dozen consecutive plays. To say that Jeremy Bates and John Morton took a USC offense hamstrung by injury to key playmakers and hamstrung it even more by creating an offensive scheme that played right into Stanford's hands for most of the first half would be an understatement.
While freshman quarterback Matt Barkley certainly deserves his share of the blame due to a four-turnover performance, I'd argue that he was - time and again - put in tough and questionable positions by the offensive scheme and play calling. This weekend, it will be interesting to see how Bates, Morton and Carroll react to USC apparently having a full array of skill-position talent available for the first time in more than a month. Through much of October, when Barkley had a full complement of receiving options and tailbacks McKnight and Allen Bradford operating at top efficiency, the USC offense was growing by leaps and bounds weekly - and Bates seemed to be finding a groove as a college play caller for the first time. Since the third quarter of the loss at Oregon, it's been a totally different - and disturbing - story.
Certainly, though the Bruin defense has playmakers and has been incredibly opportunistic (especially lately, with 10 takeaways in UCLA's past two games), it can be had. McKnight has had two big games against the Bruins, so I expect to see him utilized early and often again (hopefully not overused to the point of predictability). The likely return of Damian Williams and a much healthier Anthony McCoy and Ronald Johnson should give Barkley an expanded group of receiving targets - especially considering the recent emergence of Brice Butler. However, much like the past two meetings with UCLA, when the Trojans rushed for an average of 220 yards, the key to victory lies with McKnight and Bradford on the ground. Need further confirmation? In the Bruins' five losses this season, the opposition has averaged 42 rushing attempts and 207 rushing yards, while averaging 26 pass attempts and 210 passing yards. If the Trojans run the football consistently - and stick with it - it will open up things for Barkley and take the pressure off of him to make the big play in a tough situation.
USC Defensive Gameplan Though the USC defense was absolutely shredded for the second time in three games by a potent Stanford offense, there is some good news heading into this weekend's game. The Bruin offense is much closer in style, substance and capability to Arizona State than to either Oregon or Stanford. The ability of the Ducks and Cardinal to effectively mix rushing and passing was crucial to their stunning efforts against a battered USC defense. However, the Bruins do not have such a potent mix. UCLA's rushing offense has been terrifically inconsistent and even in the toughest season for a USC defense since 2005, the Trojans have fared well against one-dimensional attacks.
It will be crucial for USC to maintain its recent dominance of the UCLA rushing attack. If a player like Moline is able to consistently get loose against the Trojan rushing defense, USC is in deep, deep trouble. Put simply: the Trojans cannot allow UCLA's below-average rush offense to see even a sliver of daylight. Though the Bruins' offensive line is promising for the future, it has not performed consistently in run blocking in 2009. The Trojans cannot hope to win this game if they allow the UCLA front five to have a good night opening holes for Bruin runners. UCLA has shown some Wildcat formation stuff as well, but has struggled with executing it. However, don't be surprised to see a gadget play or two out of such a formation.
At the same time, the Trojan secondary must put pressure on UCLA's young receivers. While Rosario is tall, he's not incredibly physical. Still, Prince and his receivers have been in a groove recently. Knocking the receivers around a bit early could throw off that groove. At the same time, USC must get back to its early-season sack-happy pass rush. UCLA has allowed a dreadful 27 sacks and USC ranks third nationally with 32. While Prince's mobility has become a factor, again, he's not playing behind the Stanford offensive line. The Bruins like to roll him out a lot, but they also use a lot of deeper play-action drops. If the Trojans don't notch at least three sacks on Saturday, it would be a major disappointment - and a huge roadblock in their hopes for a victory.
The Pick For the first time since (perhaps) 2002, the Bruins and their fans have a very distinct feeling that they should - and will - beat USC in the week leading up to the annual Battle of Los Angeles. You can't blame them for this optimism - the Trojans have looked as dreadful as can be in two of their past three outings, while UCLA has won three in a row, albeit against the dregs of the conference. In a way, it certainly reminds me of the lead-up to the 2001 USC-UCLA game - in reverse. Then, a UCLA team that had started 6-0 had fallen into a tailspin and had some internal controversy when they came to visit a 5-5 USC team at the Coliseum. The Trojans, in Carroll's first season, were riding a three-game winning streak after a tough 2-5 start. Four quarters and 27 USC points later, the USC program was on its way to a seven-year run of success rarely equaled in the annals of college football.
While I am in no way intimating a sea-change victory for the UCLA program is in the offing on Saturday night, the similarities are eerie - and at least one night of glory for Bruin football is very possible. The Trojans will absolutely get the Bruins' best game and best effort for four full quarters this weekend - something you could contend UCLA hasn't given in every recent meeting. USC must meet UCLA's intensity head-on from the opening gun. And, in the end, that's the big question: how does USC react to the Stanford debacle and a week off to think about it? Do they: A) Come to play like Trojans? Or B) Are they simply interested in getting this season over with?
If the answer is B, don't be surprised to see a UCLA victory, even a somewhat convincing one. In the end, this one's all about the Trojans' inner motivation. If they have it - and match the Bruins' intensity - they win again. If not
However, with the home crowd behind them and the feeling that they have something to prove this week, a motivated Trojan team will hit the field on Saturday night. A complete group of offensive weapons should help Barkley - and they must, as USC cannot afford to turn the ball over to the opportunistic Bruins. And the USC defense should be capable of holding UCLA out of the end zone more often than not - allowing Forbath to add to those crazy field goal totals.
USC 24, UCLA 16
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.