No. 23 USC and No. 22 UCLA were both eliminated from the Pac-12 race last week when Arizona State defeated the Bruins, but the two crosstown rivals will still duke it out at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday to decide who will claim ownership of the Victory Bell — and bragging rights — for the next year.
The game might have lost some of its luster for outside viewers, but it still carries plenty of significance to the players who will be competing for pride on the field.
“They hate us and we hate them,” freshman safety Su’a Cravens said. “I think them losing [to ASU] is actually gonna make the game even more fired up than it already is just because they’re gonna be thinking it’s redemption time.”
The Trojans will also be looking for some measure of atonement after falling to the Bruins last year to snap a five-game winning streak in the series.
“We couldn’t wait for this game,” redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey said. “This is definitely a game I’ve had circled on my calendar, especially because they think they’re better than us since they beat us one year.”
Last year, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley completed 22 of 30 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown in the Bruins’ 38-28 victory. A dual threat out of the backfield, Hundley is averaging 239.7 passing yards (seventh in the Pac-12) and 46.1 rushing yards per game (third among Pac-12 QBs) this season.
“We cannot let Hundley run the ball or throw the ball deep,” interim head coach Ed Orgeron said in a media teleconference on Sunday. “We need to be great on coverage and great on our rush.”
But the Bruins might have a hard time protecting Hundley from USC’s vicious front seven, considering they’ve had to employ a patchwork offensive line in recent weeks due to several season-ending injuries. UCLA is expected to start three true freshmen to partially comprise a unit that allowed a whopping nine sacks against Arizona State last week. The Bruins are second-worst in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed (32), only ahead of a young and overmatched Cal team.
In order to avoid USC’s vicious pass rush led by redshirt senior linebacker Devon Kennard (third in the Pac-12 with eight sacks), the Bruins are expected to turn to freshman Myles Jack. Jack, normally a linebacker, has also played tailback for the past three weeks and tallied 265 yards and six touchdowns in the ground game. UCLA coach Jim Mora reported that normal starter Jordon James (5.9 yards/rush, five touchdowns) would probably return for UCLA’s game against Arizona State, but James didn’t end up leaving the sidelines.
The Trojans have their own tailback who’s exploded onto the scene recently in redshirt sophomore tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen, who’s tallied 619 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns over the past four games. Both Allen and redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler are preparing to receive snaps for the first time in the storied USC-UCLA rivalry.
“There’s big games, and there’s USC-UCLA,” Kessler said. “This week cannot be understated, so we’re excited.”
Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee, on the other hand, has played twice against USC’s crosstown rivals and excelled, totaling 22 receptions, 382 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Lee currently has 235 catches in his USC career, 17 short of Robert Woods’ all-time record.
But the Inglewood, Calif. native has suffered a sharp decline in performance during his third season while battling an array of injuries. After winning the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in the nation last year (118 receptions, 1,721 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns), Lee only has 44 receptions, 604 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season, and missed his third game of the season against Colorado last week due to a shin injury sustained against Stanford.
There’s speculation, however, that Lee only stayed in Los Angeles to rehab and get healthy for the Battle of Los Angeles.
In a media conference call on Sunday, Orgeron said that Lee would be limited in practice this week but was “sure he’s going to play” against the Bruins.
Like Lee, UCLA wideout Shaquelle Evans has seen his receiving numbers go down in terms of receptions (60 to 42) and yards (877 to 604), and has yet to log a 100-yard game this year despite being the Bruins’ top threat in the passing game. But Evans has stayed healthy and played in every game this season, and after recording three touchdowns last season, he has eight this year.
USC has yet to surrender a special teams touchdown this season but should be wary of UCLA returner Ishmael Adams. The sophomore defensive back earned Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week in his first game as the Bruins’ kick/punt returner last week after having kick returns of 58 and 69 yards that led to 10 Bruin points, as well as a 49-yard punt return that lead to a UCLA field goal.
If the Trojans do indeed triumph over their rivals, the prospects for Orgeron to take over the permanent head coaching job will look that much better. But Orgeron has refused to talk about that possibility this week, insisting on focusing on the task at hand.
And his players are having no issue finding motivation to upend UCLA.
“This game is gonna decide whatever bowl game they go to and whatever bowl game we go to,” Cravens said. “It might not be a major [bowl game], but we’re still fighting for pride and we’re still playing to see who the best team in L.A. is.”
And no matter the result, the players are proud of what they’ve accomplished under Orgeron, going 6-1 (6-0 in the Pac-12) since former head coach Lane Kiffin was fired and upsetting rival Stanford for the first time in five years.
“I feel like our team has definitely made a mark on history doing what we’ve done,” Bailey said. “Once [Kiffin] got fired we already had two losses. So it’s been very remarkable what we’ve been able to do under our circumstances.”
It’d be even more remarkable if the team could claim victory one more time.
Follow Will on Twitter @WillLaws