A year ago, each team involved in the historic USC-UCLA rivalry came into the schools’ annual showdown on very different terms.
One side had been sparked by a new coach who had brought a renewed sense of energy to the team. Even with a first-year starter at quarterback, they were six games over .500 (8-2) and riding a winning streak that goes back to October. Their only conference blemishes were a blowout loss on the road and an agonizingly close defeat at home.
Of course, I’m talking about the Bruins, coach Jim Mora and quarterback Brett Hundley. I’m quite sure no USC fan would mistake last season’s mess for the above sequence of events. But doesn’t that story line sound awfully familiar?
Well, maybe this scenario will too. After another disappointing loss on Saturday, the Bruins have squandered a season that started with them being picked to win the Pac-12 South in the preseason media poll. Their defense has been ripped apart by mobile quarterbacks such as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Their offensive line isn’t performing well (they allowed nine sacks to Arizona State on Saturday), and their quarterback has gone from Heisman hopeful to afterthought.
Yep, that sounds like a narrative Trojan fans have experienced before.
The second half of UCLA’s season hasn’t been quite as disastrous of a plummet as USC’s was a season ago — and the Bruins didn’t start out as highly perched as USC’s 2012 squad was. But the Bruins (8-3) are 3-3 in their last six games after starting the season 5-0, holding a nearly identical record to that of last year’s Trojans (7-3) before USC lost the Battle for Los Angeles.
Now, I’m not saying that USC is a lock to take back the Victory Bell on Saturday and add to their rivals’ misery, as UCLA did a year ago. But the Bruins have been showing the signs of a team that’s ready to cut their losses and fast forward to next season — in Mora’s press conference following his team’s loss to the Sun Devils, he gave what Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News described as “an end-of-season speech.” That’s not exactly what you’d expect to hear from a team that still has a date in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum left on their schedule.
Partially thanks to that home-field advantage, the Trojans will likely be favored to beat UCLA on Saturday and finish the regular season 10-3 — something that would’ve sounded patently ridiculous a month ago.
But if you examine the Bruins, it’s easy to see why they’ve struggled over the past six weeks — and why USC looks poised to switch roles from last year and guide their rivals further through their downward spiral.
UCLA’s problems start with the injury bug. Their offensive line has been decimated to the point that the unit has started three true freshmen over the past four games. Their starting tailback was sidelined a few games ago and they’ve had to turn to freshman linebacker Myles Jack to switch over to offense and give them a boost in the running game.
Jack has certainly helped in that regard, logging six touchdowns over UCLA’s past three games. But he’s an absolute liability in pass protection, and is partially to blame for the Bruins giving up those nine sacks to the Sun Devils. Jack admitted as much after Saturday’s defeat.
“I feel like I struggled,” Jack told the Los Angeles Daily News after the Bruins’ loss. “It’s definitely hard to learn pass pro in what, five days? That’s definitely tough. My experience with pass pro and everything, I had to get pulled out because I’m not reliable in that type of situation.”
Meanwhile, the Trojans are finally getting back to full strength. USC’s pair of redshirt junior tight ends, Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, were both more involved in the passing game against Colorado than they had been all season. Grimble caught six passes for 46 yards, both season highs, and Telfer scored his first touchdown of the year.
“Me and my brother Randall, it’s been a rough season for us,” Grimble said. “We weren’t really expecting it, we’ve been hurt. We’re two salty vets; we do whatever we can to help our team. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Junior wideout Marqise Lee and senior tailback Silas Redd didn’t travel with the team to Boulder, Colo. this weekend, but those seemed like precautionary decisions — and redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey, one of the team’s most outspoken leaders, seems quite optimistic about their statuses for the UCLA game.
“This is a game where everybody is gonna be back,” Bailey said. “’Qise, Silas — everybody’s gonna be healthy. We’re gonna go out there and y’all are gonna see the Trojans you’ve been seeing out there for seven weeks.”
If the Trojans and Bruins really do continue to play as they have been for the past month and a half, then it’s hard to argue that USC won’t keep on trending upward.
“Laying Down the Laws” runs on Mondays. To comment on this story, email Will at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.
Follow him on Twitter @WillLaws