On any given Friday, the communication streams of college football fans, from water coolers to couches, from libraries to student unions, from comment sections to Twitter feeds, explode with the exasperations of battles past and aspirations for the game to come. A Saturday of football featuring USC and UCLA, much like MLB’s Yankees-Red Sox and the NBA’s Celtics-Lakers rivalries, especially evokes an eruption of expectations for an upset. Take a peak at the reminders from both coaches and quarterbacks about respectful behavior. USC and UCLA circle this game at the end of every season and gleefully cross out dates on a calendar until it arrives. Regardless of attending “Troy Week” or “Blue and Gold Week,” each fan base relishes the opportunity for their beloved team to stamp an “L” in the right column regardless of the state of the season.
Like a gasoline-fueled fire, the 82nd “Crosstown Rivalry” represents something far more valuable than bragging rights, a prospect of something greater. This battle catapults the victor into the Pac-12 Championship game. USC lost their chance at a national championship in the league opener against Stanford. Although a Pac-12 South crown seemed a forgone conclusion in the pre-season, the Trojans would gladly march into Autzen or Stanford Stadium for a chance at a Pac-12 trophy and redemption. UCLA decided on a coaching change and, on the shoulders of a senior running back and the arm of a redshirt freshman quarterback, turned their fortunes from a 6-8 record in 2011 to a shot at the title game.
Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley will have to carefully navigate the exceedingly dangerous UCLA pass rush and their 37 sacks while targeting receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Woods seems primed to have a break out performance after a sub par season, especially since Lee will attract a ton of attention given his meteoric rise in the Heisman conversation. The USC ground game should get some serious reps to slow down Cassius Marsh and Anthony Barr, coming off of impressive performances against WSU each tallying 2.5 sacks and field goal and punt blocks respectively. If Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal find the creases in the UCLA two-deep defense, a steady diet of play action passes will open up the field for Lee, Woods, and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble.
USC’s defense will have to chase yet another powerfully quick running back in Johnathan Franklin while keeping a sharp eye on quarterback Brett Hundley’s scrambles and dump offs to tight end Joseph Fauria. Franklin put together back-to-back 160-plus yards on the ground against the Arizona schools before a balanced 66 yards rushing and 45 yards receiving against WSU. The Trojans pass rush will be hard pressed to keep Hundley in front of them and limit his ability to extend plays with his feet. Yet, the Bruins offensive line has allowed 31 sacks this year, a fact that Monte Kiffin will likely test early on longer down and distances. These situations represent a significant threat to the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that has been under fire recently, since 6-foot 7-inch Fauria could get lost in the middle of the field and sustain drives.
Both the Bruins and the Trojans seem poised to push this game, and each other, to the limit. The outcome determines much more than a year’s worth of chest thumping and victory signs. A win for USC will temper some of the disappointment over a missed national championship. USC must establish a ground game to support its vaunted receiving core. The defense needs to step up and take away UCLA’s strength, a successful ground game that could grind away at the clock. By stringing together four consecutive wins, the Bruins bring with them serious momentum leading into the Rose Bowl. USC does have a history of recent successes behind them, but the records go out the window at high noon Saturday.