Yes, a BCS title shot awaits, but USC fans know something even more possibly satisfying is on the line against the Bruins.
The Pac-10 champion USC Trojans (10-1, 7-1 Pac-10), ranked No. 2 in the BCS rankings and AP poll, close out their 2006 regular season Saturday, Dec. 2, against the crosstown-rival UCLA Bruins (6-5, 4-4) at 1:30 p.m. (PST) at a sold-out Rose Bowl in Pasadena and in front of a national ABC television audience. A Trojan victory, according to most analysts, will send USC to the BCS National Championship game on Jan. 8 against Big 10-champion Ohio State (12-0). A Bruin win, meanwhile, would not only snap a seven-game USC winning streak in the series, but would also detour the Trojans' march to Arizona right into the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game. This is the 76th meeting in the series, with the Trojans leading 41-27-7. As mentioned, USC has won the past seven meetings - many in dominating fashion - following UCLA's eight-game winning streak from 1991-98.
Last weekend, the Trojans dominated traditional rival and then-No. 5 Notre Dame, 44-24, at a frenzied Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC's Dwayne Jarrett put on a receiving show, making one circus catch after another and scoring three times as the Trojans led wire-to-wire. Meanwhile, the Bruins had last Saturday off after notching their second straight win in a 24-12 decision at Arizona State on Nov. 18. UCLA is headed to the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 27, where it will face Florida State (6-6).
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his sixth season at USC (64-11, 42-6 Pac-10). During Carroll's tenure, the Trojans have won five consecutive Pac-10 championships and the school's 10th and 11th national championships. Carroll-coached USC teams have outscored UCLA 221-86 during victories from 2001-05. In fact, UCLA has never held a lead in a game against USC since Carroll became head coach. Meanwhile, Bruin headman Karl Dorrell (28-20, 19-12) is in his fourth season at UCLA. The Bruins have appeared in bowl games in each of Dorrell's campaigns, but outside of a 10-2 mark with a senior-laden team in 2005, UCLA has hovered around the .500 mark for much of his tenure.
Normally in this space, I break down the opposition, discussing the three facets of their team (offense, defense, special teams) and their personnel before moving on to the Trojans' gameplan and a prediction. However, when USC and UCLA get together, most rabid fans know the personnel and personality of the opposition as well as (if not better than) their own team. However, this week, there are some more pressing topics regarding the USC-UCLA rivalry I'd like to touch on.
Before that, a quick synopsis of the 2006 Bruins reads thusly: the UCLA offense has struggled with consistency in all areas. The loss of starting QB Ben Olson at midseason and subsequent insertion of Patrick Cowan into the lineup did not help. Cowan has come on in recent games, but it appears that Dorrell may put Olson back on the field against USC, at least in a change-of-pace role (a questionable decision, to say the least). UCLA's defense, while undersized, is fast and has played much more aggressively under new coordinator (and former USC assistant) DeWayne Walker. The Bruin front four has had a stellar season, with ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis notching 24 sacks between them (ranking first and second in the Pac-10), while leading the conference's top-ranked rush defense. UCLA has been susceptible against the pass, however, and allowed 29 points or more in losses to Washington, Oregon, Washington State and California.
Three years ago in this space, I wrote about UCLA's emergence as a true rival to USC in football during their run of victories during the 1990s. As I wrote then:
"Well, I give the Bruins credit for that eight-game streak of theirs. For many of us, I think, it finally got our full attention. Not only because of the winning, but because the more they won, the more they talked and talked and talked. And, the more they talked, the more irritating it became."
Never once during that horrific stretch of gut-wrenching losses, however, did I fathom what would occur once the Bruins' streak ended. In 1999 or 2000 or even after Carroll's arrival and the 27-0 domination of 2001 - never once would I have imagined or dreamed of the opportunity that arises in Pasadena this Saturday. This is not only a chance for USC to notch an eighth consecutive win of its own against UCLA, but also a chance to make it happen in the eight seasons directly following the Bruin streak.
Yes, that's right, Saturday is a chance for this Trojan team to render UCLA's so-called "Golden Age" null and void right before the Bruins' (and their fans') very eyes. For those of us who sat through each of those eight brutal November Saturdays in either the Coliseum or Rose Bowl - and for that especially unfortunate group of us for whom those were our first eight games attended in the series - Saturday is a chance for final redemption from that pathetic era.
Don't think so? Well, as I posited in 2003, the Bruins "Golden Age" from 1991-98 was anything but, aside from winning a series of mostly nailbiters against the Trojans. UCLA's 60-33 mark was separated from USC's 54-39-3 mark during that period only by UCLA's wins against USC, while the Trojans actually sported better overall bowl and New Year's Day bowl records during that time.
However, during the seven seasons of USC's current streak plus the 2006 campaign, it has been a much different story. USC is 75-24 with five Pac-10 championships, four BCS bowl appearances (including three wins), three Heisman Trophy winners and two national championships. Meanwhile, UCLA is 53-42, going a pedestrian 2-3 in bowls (just as it did from 1991-98), and not coming close to qualifying for a BCS game or Pac-10 championship.
Notice the slight difference in UCLA's record from the two eras? They are just about the same football team and program they were in the 1990s - hovering near mediocrity, with a couple of successful years tossed in for good measure. The only difference:
From 1991-98, UCLA beat a USC program that suffered a decade of mediocrity - not that Bruins from either era discussed here would or should turn up their noses at a 54-39-3 mark, including Rose and Cotton Bowl victories.
From 1999-2005, UCLA has lost, mostly embarrassingly, to a resurgent Trojan football dynasty.
This whole idea of a return to a so-called UCLA "Golden Age" that so many Bruin fans, alums, former and current players seem to constantly long for basically sheds light on the one and only true goal of their football program - beating USC. A "Golden Age" to a Bruin fan only means a winning streak against the Trojans and nothing more. This is why, even with all of the Trojans' recent (and many national record-setting) accomplishments, many Bruins hang their hats on that eight-game streak and act as if they've still one-upped USC.
Saturday is a chance to remove those Bruin hats from that eight-game streak peg. While USC's players are focused on simply beating the 2006 Bruins they will encounter on the field, a more pertinent drama for fans and alums alike will likely play out around tailgate barbeques and in the stands. With a victory Saturday, the Trojans will have equaled the one and only thing UCLA and its fans can hold dear in this football rivalry, which USC has dominated for most of its eight decades.
"Yeah, USC has 11 national championships and seven Heismans, but we won eight in a row against them!" "SC's never won eight straight against us and we're a basketball school." And on and on and on. Saturday, that talk could - and should - be silenced forever, sending UCLA back where they belong - to the end of the rival line, well behind Notre Dame and, perhaps now, even California, which has become an increasingly heated rival in recent years.
Now, I know that there has been much talk among Trojan fans, on talk radio and on Internet message boards about the possible match-up with Ohio State on Jan. 8. I'm not one of those nattering nabobs who will pop up on a message board and scold folks for "looking ahead." We're fans - outside of showing up and rooting as loudly as possible for our team on Saturday, our mental state has little to do with that of the USC team. I'm certain that Carroll will have this group laser-focused for the Bruins, just as they have for each and every "big" game this program's been involved in since his arrival.
However, I will say that those of you who look across the field Saturday and see that team and those fans dressed up in baby blue and don't get a fire in your belly just thinking about destroying them well, where were you in the 1990s? John Barnes, Marvin Goodwin, Wayne Cook, Skip Hicks, Cade McNown anyone? Rob Johnson with the Rose Bowl on his arm in 1993? The 10-minute drive down two scores in 1995? Leading 38-21 late in the fourth quarter in 1996? Is your memory that short? Mine certainly isn't.
The Pick UCLA's defense presents an interesting match-up for the USC offense - and one better equipped to make the Trojans work hard than Oregon, Cal or Notre Dame were. The Bruins have really made hay getting after opposing quarterbacks and have been strong against the run, except in losses to Oregon and Cal. In those games, UCLA gave up 423 rushing yards at an average of 5.5 yards per carry. The Bruins undersized linebackers have struggled in those games, and can be dominated if USC's offensive line does its normal job of handling opponents' defensive linemen. The Bruin secondary has problems against solid receiving corps and quarterbacks. In one three-game stretch against Notre Dame, Washington State and Cal, UCLA gave up an average of 325 passing yards per game.
On the other side of the ball, UCLA's offense is in trouble against a USC defense that has come into its own. Without a stunning performance by Cowan, or a major regression by the Trojan defense, the Bruins will struggle to move the ball with any consistency. Running back Chris Markey is a solid player, but he has been inconsistent, as has his workload. Putting Olson into the game at any point may be a grievous error by Dorrell. Putting a QB who hasn't played in two months under center against this USC defense - especially one not nearly as mobile as Cowan and coming off a knee problem - is like putting a side of raw meat in front of a hungry lion. Without a slew of Trojan turnovers, or incredible success on misdirection or trick plays, I just don't see how the Bruins can get anywhere close to the points they are going to need to win this game. In turn, expect the pressure on the Bruin offense to lead to turnovers that the Trojans will convert into points. Jarrett, Smith and Gable will each score a touchdown and the Trojans will turn a 10-0 halftime edge into a second-half runaway. Eight more years! USC 30, UCLA 7.
Tom Haire (Tom4SC) has been writing for USCFootball.com for six years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the television 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 [email protected]