On Tuesday, USC returned to practice, beginning preparation for an emotional rivalry game against UCLA.
With the Trojans having already clinched a spot in the Pac-12 Championship as a result of last week’s win at Colorado, it may seem like the team has little incentive to show up against an unranked UCLA team. After practice, head coach Clay Helton insisted this was not the case.
“I think this game is so important for us and our seniors, when you look at it,” Helton said. “The Victory Bell is something that’s truly special to this University. We understand how important this game is to our fan base.”
Helton noted that a win on Saturday would give seniors, such as senior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins, an undefeated record against UCLA at the Coliseum (last time the Bruins visited in 2015, the Trojans won 41-20). Helton compared the cross-town rivalry to his own experiences as a college quarterback.
“I’ve been at Auburn University when I played as a young person,” Helton said. “You see that Auburn-Alabama rivalry and how special it is, and there’s a lot of these rivalries that are real special. I love this one because it’s so unique, because we live in the same town. Really when you think about the rivalries around the country, they’re miles and miles apart. Here we live right across the street from each other.”
For redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, this will be his first time going head-to-head with UCLA’s fellow NFL draft quarterback prospect Josh Rosen in a much anticipated battle for supremacy in Los Angeles.
“I think when it comes down to it, it’s just two quarterbacks competing,” Darnold said. “We just happen to be two pretty good players.”
USC’s defense looked to be energized on Tuesday, forcing numerous interceptions in a pass skeleton drill against both redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Fink and Darnold.
The unit even returned two interceptions for touchdowns within the span of minutes, one by redshirt sophomore cornerback Jalen Jones and the other by redshirt senior safety Matt Lopes. After each pick-six the defensive sideline erupted in celebration for their teammates.
When the College Football Playoff rankings were released during practice last week, the Trojans received a pleasant surprise moving up seven spots to No. 11.
In this week’s standings, USC remained at No. 11 despite plenty of chaos ensuing in the college football world. Two fellow two-loss teams that were ranked behind them last week — Ohio State and Penn State — both leapfrogged the Trojans in this week’s edition. Despite an underwhelming position in the rankings, the team is holding out hope for a potential playoff run, even though the chances are very slim.
“Oh that’s definitely on our minds,” junior running back Ronald Jones II said. “We want to go to the best bowl game possible … but the goal is to win a national championship.”