LOS ANGELES – After days filled with impostor tweets, pleas for Robert Woods to be thrown the ball more, vandalized property on the UCLA campus and an interesting back-and-forth between USC band members and those at UCLA who don’t want Tommy Trojan to stab the UCLA logo in normal fashion before the game, it’s finally time for No. 18 USC and No. 17 UCLA to settle it on the field.
The city is divided over two teams that will compete for the right to be called Pac-12 South Division champs on Saturday at noon.
Each team feels a different way about the position that they’re in. It’s been almost a Cinderella type turn around for the folks in Westwood under first-year head coach Jim Mora. Ten games into the season, there are still some fans on the UCLA campus that are in a state of disbelief – shocked even – that their team is ranked nationally and displays a product on the field unlike anything seen over the last two seasons. And this is just less than a year after being the laughingstock of the bowl season as a team with a record under .500.
USC and Lane Kiffin tell a different story. With Thanksgiving less than a week away, he’s thankful to be in this position in the midst of what has been a disappointing season for USC.
“I think we’re fortunate to have the conference losses that we do and still be able to be in this hunt,” Kiffin said. “We’re fortunate to be in the South (Division).”
Entering the season, no one would have assumed the Trojans would be “fortunate” to be in a position to take on the Bruins with a division crown on the line. This is the bed that was made so the Trojans and their three losses are going to have to lay in it.
Whether last year’s 50-0 loss has spearheaded UCLA’s transformation this season is debatable.
What’s not is the lasting memory of that night that the Bruins will carry with them into the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
“They’re going to come out and to try to smash us,” Marqise Lee said.
Lee and Woods had their way with the UCLA secondary a year ago. While they may not put up astronomical numbers like the 25 catches, 337 yards and four touchdowns they combined for in the rout last season, there is reason to believe they will be able to have a considerable amount of success on Saturday. The Bruins are ranked 103rd in the nation in pass defense.
In the stat Kiffin believes is the most telling when analyzing defenses, yards per play, UCLA is giving up 5.5.
“We’ll attack certain points like we always do,” Barkley said. “I think we got a good game plan.”
UCLA likely feels the same way. However, this time around, unlike they’ve had in a long time, the Bruins have a dangerous quarterback to execute that game plan.
For what it’s worth, the Trojans are allowing 5.2 yards per play and that number could rise after trying to slow down UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. The redshirt freshman has been extraordinary in his first season as a starter and he enters Saturday hotter than he’s been all season.
Over his last two games, he’s completing 84 percent of his passes (41-of-49) for 549 yards and six touchdowns. He’s in danger of breaking Rick Neuheisel’s single-season record for completion percentage. Hundley is completing 69.0 percent of his passes. Neuheisel’s record is 69.3 in 1983.
“Coming into the week, you knew the numbers,” Kiffin said, “and then you start watching (and think) ‘How can that happen with a freshman?’
“That’s very unusual.”
For the season, he’s thrown 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The freshman spreads the ball around. Nine different players have double-digit receptions for the Bruins. Hundley’s thrown a touchdown pass to 13 different receivers.
Two of those touchdown passes have gone to running back Johnathan Franklin, who along with being sixth in the nation in rushing, is also the team’s fourth-leading receiver with a career-high 24 catches.
Franklin, like so many players on both sides, grew up in Los Angeles. Many of the players that will be on the field on Saturday, grew up playing with or against those on the other side, which makes this rivalry so special.
It makes it challenging also.
“This is almost the most challenging game on our schedule because of that, because of all the relationships and the families knowing each other and the kids knowing each other,” Kiffin said. “This is always the hardest week. A lot harder than next week (against Notre Dame).”
On the flip side, a benefit for both coaches is never having to worry about players not being motivated to play in this game.