In 2010 and 2011, USC was bowl ineligible due to NCAA sanctions. Now, it seems as though bowl ineligibility is a possibility for the Trojans — this time due to an upset loss to Cal. They will take on UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday to fight for a bowl game.
The Trojans are now 5-5, in line for their worst record since Pete Carroll’s first year with the program in 2001 when the team went 6-6. That looks like the best case scenario for the Trojans right now; it seems incredulous to think they’ll even be able to compete with the undefeated, No. 3-ranked Notre Dame squad set to file into the Coliseum next weekend. A win at the Rose Bowl this weekend will likely be USC’s only ticket to a .500 record, and it might not be as easy as it should be.
“I think a win against UCLA does a lot for the seniors,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It’s a unique rivalry and I think it’s important right now [for] those seniors. Those guys that have been here, we’ve done this together. To hopefully keep that bell cardinal would be a great thing.”
USC offense vs. UCLA defense
The Trojan offense has lacked a clear identity throughout the year. Its primary sources of production have been all over the place; one week the passing game entirely on its shoulders while the run game stagnates, another week the Trojans will rush for over 300 yards, and in another they’ll fail to produce any points at all.
It seemed that this would change after Helton assumed play-calling duties two weeks ago and the subsequent victory at Oregon State, as the Trojans placed a newfound emphasis on the run game, which resulted in over 300 yards rushed.
However, the Cal loss proved that the Trojans still have no clear offensive identity. The ground game was solid, as the running backs rushed for 97 yards on 38 carries, led by redshirt senior Aca’Cedric Ware’s excellent performance. Helton said that both Ware and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai are healthy and expected to play on Saturday.
But the Trojans went away from rushing the ball as the game went on, instead choosing to put the game in freshman quarterback JT Daniels’ hands. That strategy didn’t work out so well. After a first half that saw him throw for over 150 yards and two touchdowns on a 75 percent completion rate, he failed to get going in the second half, throwing a pick and finishing the night with a 35.4 quarterback rating. The team ended the second half with 41 total yards on 31 plays.
The return of No. 1 receiving target junior Michael Pittman this week could be a big boost to the passing offense — if he’s healthy. Pittman had been on a tear the past three weeks before his injury, with 16 catches for 352 yards and five touchdowns, all team highs over that span. Wide receivers redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns and freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown have also played well in recent weeks; at this point, the issue worth watching for is whether or not Daniels can consistently get the ball in their hands.
On the ground, Ware has been excellent, with over 300 yards in the past two contests as he’s capitalized on the improvement of the run blocking in front of him. The Trojans would be wise to feed him heavily this week, as they face a UCLA run defense ranked 113th in the nation, giving up an average of 215.5 ground yards per game.
The Trojans haven’t truly done so at any point this season; aside from Arizona where he had 21 carries, Ware hasn’t received over 20 in a game yet. It might be in their best interests to finally do so.
If the Trojans do, they’ll likely be able to beat down a weak UCLA defense, one that’s given up more than 30 points in all but two games this season, quite easily. If they don’t, the success of the offense depends on which version of Daniels shows up; the difference between his performance during the first and second halves of the Cal game might be enough to sway the outcome of a game. However, against a lackluster defense like the one the Trojans will face Saturday, it’s more likely than not they’ll manage to put points on the board.
UCLA offense vs. USC defense
Though the Bruins aren’t exactly imposing on the other side of the ball either, they have enough playmakers to be dangerous on offense any given night.
Running back Joshua Kelley has been their best weapon, with 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage on the year. Arizona State contained him last week, holding him to 3.8 yards per carry.
Helton credited head coach Chip Kelly, who is in his first season at UCLA.
“I have a lot of respect for [Kelly],” Helton said. “Being one of those coaches who is an offense coach by trade, he’s one of those guys who has been an offensive genius for a long time. I’ve always looked up to him.”
The loaded fronts ASU used to slow down Kelley opened up the Bruins’ aerial attack, allowing for one-on-one opportunities down the field for tight end Caleb Wilson.
Though UCLA has received average-at-best quarterback play most of the year, Wilson has been a force for them at tight end — he’s one of the best in the nation. He’s racked up 718 yards and four touchdowns on the year, and will look to add to that total on Saturday against the Trojans.
The last time the Trojans played against a team with similar talent at tight end, they were manhandled by Stanford’s Kaden Smith. The defense has been suspect recently in its coverage ability, getting picked apart by Jake Luton of Oregon State. This could be a problem against the duo of Wilson and wide receiver Theo Howard, who has 513 yards and three touchdowns on the year so far.
Although USC is 5-5, Helton is still motivated to win the game.
“You treat it like it’s the Super Bowl,” Helton said. “You treat it like it’s the championship game, and I know those kids worked extremely hard in prep this week and were very competitive and focused. They want this for themselves, for their school and for their pride.”
Prediction: USC 28, UCLA 21
USC’s lack of identity and inconsistency in every aspect of the game has made it difficult to project the team’s performances from week to week. Expect them to pull away in this one. After the nightmare of a month the Trojans have had, losing to UCLA to ensure a losing season would be the biggest blow imaginable.
They should be able to exploit a weak Bruin defense, but their ability to hold things down on the other side of the ball is worrisome. Expect them to give up some scores, making this game closer than it should be. However, they should find a way to pull this one out.
Delanie Pence contributed to this report.