For the first time in seemingly decades, this season’s crosstown-rivalry game has a lot on the line.
The Pac-12 South division title will be at stake when the Trojans visit the Rose Bowl on Saturday for their annual rivalry game. A trip to the Pac-12 title game will hang on the balance, as well.
Many analysts felt the south division was USC’s to lose when the season began. As it turns out, its arch-rival might just be the one to take it from them.
The No. 17 Bruins (8-2, 5-2) have won four straight games since losing to California on Oct. 6. They sit in first place in the division, and a win would secure them a spot in the Pac-12 championship game for the second-straight year.
Meanwhile, the No. 18 Trojans (7-3, 5-3) are coming off two losses in their last three games. USC coach Lane Kiffin and his team are aware of how dangerous this UCLA team can be and how much better they have become since last season’s 50-0 blowout at the Coliseum.
“We have a lot of respect for what they’re doing over there,” Kiffin said. “I think coach [Jim] Mora has done a great job in his first year. It’s never easy to come into a program and get things turned around that fast.”
Though rivalry week is always intense in Los Angeles, this year’s edition has been especially newsworthy. This week, the Bruins asked that the Trojan Marching Band’s drum major not stab the UCLA logo with his signature sword. If violated, UCLA would not allow the band to play at halftime. They agreed, which has caused outcry from USC fans. Earlier in the year, a billboard of senior quarterback Matt Barkley placed in Westwood was taken down and a fake Twitter account from a UCLA player took shots at USC’s receivers. USC coach Lane Kiffin is doing his best to ignore it all, though.
“I don’t know much about that,” Kiffin said. “I don’t think I was involved in any of those.”
One thing that cannot be ignored, however, is the Bruins’ overall effectiveness on offense this season. The primary key to the Bruins’ turnaround in 2012 has been stable quarterback play for the first time in several seasons. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley has started all 10 games and has thrown 24 touchdowns to only nine interceptions. He has also run for six touchdowns and is among the best freshman quarterbacks in college football.
“[Hundley] really can make things happen when they break down whether he’s running it or whether he’s throwing it on third downs,” Kiffin said. “So we’re going to have our hands full and have to rush really well.”
The Bruins’ other main offensive weapon comes in the form of senior running back Johnathan Franklin, who is second in the conference and seventh nationally in rushing yards with 1,270. His running has helped the Bruins average more than 37 points per game and average 496.8 total yards per game.
“[Franklin’s] a strong runner,” senior safety T.J. McDonald said. “We really have to make sure to tackle him in open space and make sure he doesn’t get a head of steam. He’s definitely a catalyst for their offense. We’ve got to make sure to tackle him and not give him too many gaps to squirt through.”
Though featuring a potent offense, UCLA’s defense is somewhat of a weak point. They give up a modest 24.7 points per game, but rank No. 103 nationally in pass defense, having surrendered 20 touchdowns through the air. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who ranks No. 2 in the country in touchdown passes with 33 doesn’t believe that a weak secondary will change the Trojans’ game plan, but is nonetheless confident in the offense.
“We look at schemes as well as personnel every week,” Barkley said. “We’ll attack certain points like we always do. I don’t really tend to look at the rankings like that because you never know how those stack against who a team is playing and all that stuff, who they’ve played in the past. So, we’ll just go through our normal scouting routine … We have a good game plan this week.”
The Trojans seem poised to expose the Bruins’ secondary, but need to cut down on their turnovers. Barkley threw three interceptions in last week’s 38-17 win against Arizona State and, as a team, USC turned the ball over five times two weeks earlier in a loss at Arizona.
“We just have to put points on the board and not leave them on the field like we did last week,” Barkley said. “Especially in the red zone.”
Senior center Khaled Holmes seconded Barkley’s sentiments.
“The only thing holding us back has been ourselves,” Holmes said. “As long as we take care of business, we should be good.”
With a possible trip to the Rose Bowl Game on the line, Kiffin knows how big this game is. But he believes the crosstown rivalry game is important no matter each team’s wins and losses.
“This game’s a big game no matter what because it’s USC-UCLA regardless of what records are,” Kiffin said. “It’s good that it’s a relevant game for two years in a row and that’s the way it should be.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl is scheduled for noon. The game will be televised nationally on FOX.