After a spectacular 41-17 victory at Cal last Saturday, things are looking up for head coach Clay Helton’s Trojans. After the weekend, USC is now ranked No. 23 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, and — more importantly — half a game behind No. 7 Utah in the Pac-12 South.
A win against crosstown rival UCLA Saturday would improve the Trojans’ record to a respectable 8-4 and keep USC’s faint hopes of a Pac-12 Championship alive. Provided the criticism USC has faced all season, both achievements might go a long way in determining the future of the program.
But before the speculation begins, the UCLA game comes first.
Last year, USC fell to UCLA 34-27 in one of the Trojans’ worst performances of the disappointing 5-7 season.
Despite the sting of the loss, redshirt junior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns insisted that Saturday’s game is not about revenge.
“Not at all,” Vaughns said. “It’s not revenge for these guys. It’s reset and just play this game. It’s not revenge at all. We’re just trying to go out there and ball out like we usually do.”
But according to many players, the sting of that loss hasn’t entirely faded.
“Obviously, last year, we didn’t get the outcome that we wanted,” sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “So I think we’re all coming into this week with a little chip on our shoulder.”
When asked about how special the USC-UCLA rivalry is, redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Jalen McKenzie underscored the game’s significance.
“It’s the biggest week of the season — from the standpoint of self-pride, university pride,” McKenzie said. “It’s all of that, so you’re playing for everything.”
With all the noise and hype that is sure to accompany the days leading up to the game, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell emphasized the importance of preparation.
“Hopefully it doesn’t affect us too much,” Harrell said. “Obviously, there will be a lot of outside stuff going on and for both the fanbases it will be a big game. We got to give ourselves the best chance to go play well and the best way to do that is to prepare the right way.”
Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis echoed Harrell’s sentiment.
“I’m really excited to just get an opportunity to compete — any week, regardless of whether it’s a rivalry,” Slovis said. “We don’t want to get too emotionally involved, we’ve just got another game on Saturday.”
Vaughns also reiterated that the team’s mindset won’t change for the rivalry game.
“It’s business as usual,” Vaughns said. “We’re trying to go 1-0 this week. We’re not trying to focus on putting too much hype on the game or anything like that. We’re just trying to go out there and beat them.”
Support for Coach
At many schools, an 8-4 record and a bowl game are evidence of a successful season. At USC however, this performance and the results of the last two seasons are simply not enough.
Given the likelihood that Saturday will be Helton’s last regular season game as USC’s head coach, his players made sure to voice their support.
“We support him 100%,” Vaughns said. “He had our backs when we came here and recruited us out of high school. We’re just trying to give him our best.”
St. Brown added that contrary to what many may think, most of the players don’t pay much attention to the controversy.
“A lot of us don’t even see it,” St. Brown said. “We’re not all on Twitter or social media like you guys. So we don’t even see all the stuff that people [say]. Like I said, we just go out there … We know what the players are and what the coaches are, and we just go out and play.”
Helton said redshirt junior running back Vavae Malepeai practiced in full pads Tuesday and is getting more confident after undergoing knee surgery in October. He remains day-to-day.
The coaching staff also intends to ease Vaughns, who is still recovering from an ankle injury, back into the offense. Helton said the standout receiver looked better during Tuesday’s practice than he did in last week’s practices.
Sophomore linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV is unlikely to play against UCLA.