A top-10 finish is within sight. A double-digit win season is a realistic possibility. But standing in the way is crosstown rival UCLA.
No. 10 USC, winners of six of its last seven contests, and UCLA (6-5, 5-3) will meet for the 81st time in one of college football’s most intense rivalries Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Bruins will travel across town as winners of their last three of four contests. With a win over the Trojans (9-2, 6-2) — or a Utah loss vs. Colorado — UCLA could clinch the Pac-12 South division title. Despite coming off a big win against then-No. 4 Oregon, the USC coaching staff believes the team will not overlook the Bruins.
“This team will be focused,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I don’t think it’ll be hard at all. Because our kids played with these kids growing up, this is the biggest rivalry game and it means a lot.”
Though UCLA’s offense ranks just 75th in the nation, averaging 25 points per game, it did score a season-high 45 points against Colorado last weekend. Quarterback Kevin Prince has thrown for just 1,202 yards and eight touchdowns all year, but four of those touchdown passes came last weekend against the Buffaloes. Prince has, however, amassed an average of 79.5 rushing yards per contest over the last four games. Tailback Jonathan Franklin leads the team with 857 rushing yards, while also recording five touchdowns and wide receiver Nelson Rosario has notched 890 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season.
On the other side of the ball, the Bruins’ defense ranks 81st in the country, giving up an average of 29 points and almost 400 yards per contest.
In his career, though, junior quarterback Matt Barkley has recorded just 404 passing yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions against UCLA. This season, Barkley has thrown for 3,105 yards and 33 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. After his performance against the Ducks — it was his fifth career game at USC with at least 300-plus passing yards and four or more touchdowns — the coaching staff believes the signal caller deserves an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony next month.
“I thought Matt did some really good things [against Oregon],” Kiffin said. “For the most part, he played really well and made a lot of big plays in the game. If you look at the way he’s played in big games, which is supposed to matter, I don’t see how he’s not in New York.”
Wide receivers freshman Marqise Lee and sophomore Robert Woods have combined for 22 of Barkley’s touchdowns and more than 2,000 receiving yards. The running game has also come on strong as of late. Junior tailback Curtis McNeal notched 94 rushing yards against Oregon — his sixth straight game with at least 85 yards on the ground. Part of that success can be attributed to the play of the offensive line, whose play has improved throughout the season, according to the players.
“They’re playing awesome,” Barkley said of the unit following the Oregon game. “Our offensive line is opening up running holes like none other. They’re kind of a mixed up group in the beginning of the season, but they’ve come together to play as a unit. I’m proud of these guys.”
The Trojans’ defense has also improved as the season has progressed, limiting the Oregon offense to just 35 points — 11 below its average — and 209 rushing yards, after coming in averaging more than 290 yards per contest. The play of its young linebackers — redshirt freshmen Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey, and freshmen Tre Madden and Lamar Dawson — has been a key reason for the defensive unit’s strong play.
“We’ve come a long way just since last year, from the Arizona game and until now,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “We have a lot of young guys and they believe what we’re preaching. To see a young defense come from the struggles in the early season and to see us improve shows we’re just getting better, and that’s what matters.”
Coming off an emotional win over a top-five team and the hype surrounding the USC-UCLA rivalry this weekend, the Trojans understand they cannot overlook the Bruins, no matter what records indicate.
“Going into UCLA, we definitely don’t overlook anybody, especially a rivalry game,” redshirt freshman Randall Telfer said. “They can easily beat us and they’re a good football program. We’ll continue to [work hard] this week and hopefully we can bring home a win on Saturday.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on Fox Sports Network.