USC prepares for UCLA showdown

Redshirt senior safety Greg Johnson returns an interception with his teammates behind him.
Redshirt senior safety Greg Johnson returns an interception during a USC game. Johnson has 22 total tackles this season and 1 touchdown return. (Simon Park | Daily Trojan file photo)

USC faces UCLA Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the 91st meeting between the two schools. The Trojans have won two straight meetings against the Bruins.

In mid-August, the AP Preseason poll ranked USC No. 15 in the nation.

Since then, the Trojans’ Head Coach Clay Helton was fired in week two, a quarterback conversation emerged between an early Heisman favorite and a true freshman, it lost it’s leading offensive player to a broken ankle and, last week, experienced the first coronavirus-related cancelation in the FBS.

USC fans have endured the lows of losses by an average of 15.6 points and the highs of winning by an average of 21 points. 

Despite this, energy and excitement are still high as the game approaches. 

It’ll be up to freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart to lead the way in his first career start, after junior quarterback Kedon Slovis was ruled out with a lower leg injury. 

“It’s definitely super exciting,” said Dart after practice Tuesday. “I wouldn’t really expect my first start to be in a rivalry game like this with all the emotions and just the history of it all. I am ready to go attack it.”

Dart will attack a UCLA team that is riding on a high after becoming bowl eligible for the first time in Head Coach Chip Kelly’s tenure. UCLA took down Colorado 44-20 last week to get to six wins for the first time since 2017. The Bruins fell behind 20-10 at the break but a 34-point second half explosion sparked the win.

Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will take on the Trojans for the third time as the headman of the Kelly offense. Thompson-Robinson, known for his running ability, has made plays with his arm against the Trojans in his previous two starts. 

Although Thompson-Robinson holds a 60% completion percentage in his career, against the Trojans, that number rises to 70% to go along with his 7 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. 

All eyes will be on the two quarterbacks. However, this game will be decided by the play in the middle. 

On the defensive side of the ball UCLA’s strength comes from its blitz packages. The Bruins run a 4-2-5 bullet’s dual linebacker blitzing defense, essentially using the two linebackers to rush the quarterback with frequency. 

This play style could cause problems for USC’s inexperienced quarterback but also open up some opportunities. Offensive Coordinator Graham Harrell said Dart will have to extend plays against the blitz-heavy UCLA defense. 

“One thing that Jaxson [Dart] does a really good job of is extending plays with his feet,” Harrell said. “There’s probably going to be times where he has to do that.” 

Offensive line coach Clay McGuire said the Trojans’ extra week of practice helped his group scheme for the Bruins dual linebacker blitz packages. 

“[UCLA] does a lot of stuff on defense. They’re a very aggressive, very attacking defense,” McGuire said. “Getting the extra couple days helps when you can slow it down for the kids.” 

On the flip side of the ball, USC faces one of the best 1-2 rushing attacks in all of the Pac-12 this weekend.

Michigan-transfer senior Zach Charbonnet is in the top five of nearly every statistical rushing category in the country. His backup, redshirt senior Brittain Brown, averages over 6.0 yards per carry. 

Stopping the run has ensured a surefire path of success for the Trojans. USC has allowed 93 yards per game on the ground in its 4 wins and 220 yards a game in its 5 losses. Meanwhile, the Bruins have rushed for over 200 yards in all six of their wins.

For Defensive Coordinator Todd Orlando, tackling continues to be an emphasis for the Trojans. Especially going against two talented tailbacks.

“One of the problems you have when you are running ahead of the football [to tackle] it’s the guys that are behind you are trying to figure out what angle you are taking,” Orlando said. “That’s the stuff we worked on fundamentally when we could steal a couple days last week.”

The Bruins have a chance to not only claim the victory bell this weekend but also slice USC’s chances of a bowl game to razor thin with a win. 

USC plays No. 14 BYU next week and UC Berkeley on the road the week after. Coming out of the crosstown rivalry without a win would put the Trojans backs against the wall and would require the team to sweep its final two games to get to the magic number 6. 

Redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa said how much a win against UCLA can mean to this year’s team. 

“The rest of the season aside,” Figueroa said. “You win this game, it’s a successful year.”