8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: UCLA -4
Old rivals meet tonight at the Rose Bowl as the nineteenth-ranked USC Trojans face off against the ninth-ranked UCLA Bruins with the Pac-12 South Division Title hanging in the balance. Heading into tonight’s clash, the Trojans (7-3, 6-2 in Pac-12) own a slim lead on the division, with the Bruins, along with both Arizona and Arizona State in a three-way tie for second place. With one more win, Steve Sarkisian will have guided the program to the Conference Championship Game in just his first season as Head Coach, a remarkable feat given the state of the program in the wake of NCAA Sanctions and the beleaguered Lane Kiffin Era. Sarkisian, who served as Pete Carroll’s Quarterback’s Coach during Southern California’s glory run of the early 2000’s, has returned to Los Angeles after five years at Washington, where he rebuilt the Huskies into a revitalized program. Now, with one more victory, the Trojans will have matched their highest win total in five years, a surprising notion given seven straight eleven-win campaigns from 2002-2008. Winners of two straight contests, Sarkisian’s charges are well-rested having been off since last Thursday’s 38-30 win over California. USC led visiting Cal 31-2 with 1:39 left in the first half, before the Golden Bears finally crossed the Goal to cut the lead to 31-9 at Halftime. However, Sonny Dykes’ outfit very nearly rallied back, outscoring the hosts 21-7 over the final thirty minutes of play, including a pair of touchdowns inside the final seven minutes of the game. On the night, the Trojans outgained the Bears 450-384, including 371-279 in the passing game, which proved to be the difference after neither team could manage much traction on the ground; though their defense held Cal to 105 yards on 31 carries (3.4 yards/carry), Southern Cal was only able to muster a scant 79 yards on 35 carries (2.3 yards/carry). Cody Kessler put together a stellar performance, completing 31-of-42 passes (73.8%) for 371 yards (8.8 yards/attempt), four touchdowns and one interception, with sixteen passes hauled in by Nelson Agholor, who parlayed it into 216 yards (13.2 yards/catch) and a pair of scores.
After three years of NCAA Sanctions which saw limited scholarship offers and a lengthy Bowl Ban, the Trojans have suffered on the recruiting front, however not int he way that one would immediately think. Does this team have top-tier talent? Absolutely, one look at their Receiving Corps and Defensive Line is proof of that. The problem, as always when scholarships get docked, is depth. Instead of acquiring twenty-five top recruits a season, they’ve only been able to sign twenty, which is real difference over the course of three years. But say what you want about the previous regime, but they did manage to recruit some great players despite handcuffed resources. The aforementioned Kessler and Agholor are prime examples of this, with the Juniors posting All-Conference-caliber numbers. In his second campaign as the starter, Kessler has been extremely efficient, completing 70.2% of his passes for 2,919 yards (8.6 yards/attempt), 29 touchdowns and just three interceptions. With his steady hand at the wheel, the Trojans have averaged 32.0 points on 458.1 yards per game, including 294.9 yards through the air, with another 163.2 yards on the ground. He and Agholor have teamed up on many an occasion, connecting for 82 receptions, 1,079 yards (13.2 yards/catch), and ten touchdowns. The Wide Receiver has really turned up the dial over the second half of the season, with four consecutive 100-yard games, including back-to-back 200-yard performances; it was quite the disparity from the first six games (67.5 yards) to the past four (168.5 yards). In the Backfield, Javorius Allen has emerged as the featured Tailback, rushing for 1,184 yards on 217 carries (5.5 yards/attempt), and eight touchdowns, while also factoring into the passing game with 32 receptions for 383 yards (12.0 yards/catch) and a score. On the opposite side of the ball, the defense has allowed 21.2 points, but has done so yielding 399.3 yards per game. Six times this season the Trojans have already relinquished 400 or more yards, and on two occasions have given up over 500. The equalizier of course has been turnovers, with Southern Cal’s defense forcing eighteen, which combined with the efficient play of their compatriots on Offense factors into a healthy plus-nine differential. Sarkisian has seen his defense produce eight takeaways over the past four games, and they’ll likely need to force a few tonight against the Bruins; in last year’s 35-14 defeat, USC committed a pair of turnovers (both lost fumbles) and was able to force none themselves.
Meanwhile, after losing back-to-back games in October, UCLA (8-2,5-2 in Pac-12) has since picked themselves up off the mat, winning four consecutive games, thus injecting themselves back into the race for the Pac-12 South Title. As has been the case throughout the campaign, the Bruins have lived dangerously, winning those four contests by an aggregate 29 points (7.3 points/game). However, in their last outing, a 44-30 victory at Washington, the final score was actually much closer than the contest ever was. With the visitors establishing a 14-10 lead early in the Second Quarter, Jim Mora’s charges ran off seventeen consecutive points to enter the Half with a 31-10 advantage. The Huskies would go on to outscore the Bruins 20-13 over the final thirty minutes of play, but the outcome was never in doubt. At the end of the day, UCLA outgained Washington 476 to 366, owning a decisive advantage through the air (302-155), with Quarterback Brett Hundley completing 29-of-36 passes (80.6%) for 302 yards (8.4 yards/attempt) and two touchdowns. The Junior also rushed for another two scores. Now, well-rested off a Bye Week, UCLA is on the precipice of winning their second Pac-12 South Title in three years; with victories over the likes of Arizona State (62-27) and Arizona (17-7), Mora and Co. own the tiebreaker over both schools. And all they’ll have to do is defeat their bitter rivals for third consecutive time; when Mora arrived in 2012, the Bruins had dropped twelve out of thirteen versus the Trojans, but have since beaten them in each of the past two seasons, 38-28 in 2012 and 35-14 in 2013.
Coming into the season, UCLA was the clear-cut favorite to represent the South Division in the Conference Championship Game (Preseason No. 7 in the AP Poll), but started off slowly with a number of close victories that dropped them down the rankings each week before their back-to-back losses to Utah (28-30) and Oregon (40-32) left them out of the rankings altogether. Injuries on both sides of the ball had a profound effect on this team early on, particularly Hundley, who valiantly played through an elbow injury in the first month of the campaign. As a result, the Bruins just didn’t look all that impressive; on the season they’ve only outscored their opposition by an average of 6.1 points, and have seen seven of their ten contests decided by single digits, with four decided by three or fewer points. In many ways though, their Quarterback has been the glue that has kept this team together, for Mora would shutter to think where his charges would be without No. 17. A preseason Heisman candidate, Hundley hasn’t quite played to lofty expectations, but has nonetheless done enough to keep his team afloat while they get healthy. Versatility has been his strongest trait, accounting for 3,120 yards from scrimmage or in other words 63.8% of the offense. Thus far, Hundley has completed a Pac-12 best 72.1% of his passes for 2,547 yards (8.4 yards/attempt), seventeen touchdowns and four interceptions, while also rushing for 564 yards on 135 carries and a team-high seven scores. With the Offensive Line finally coming together after being decimated by injuries early, he has received much better protection in the pocket; over the past four games, Hundley has averaged 260.3 yards through the air, and another 88.3 on the ground, with ten total touchdowns and just one turnover. And in two career starts versus USC, he has proven to be a Trojan-killer of sorts, completing 40-of-57 passes (70.2%) for 442 yards (7.8 yards/attempt), one touchdown and no interceptions, wile also racking up another 90 yards and four scores on 29 carries. Defensively, Mora’s outfit has slowly rounded into shape of late, limiting their opponents to just 310.5 yards over the past two outings, a huge improvement over the previous eight contests in which they were gashed for 434.9 yards. A return to health for many players has been key here, but it should not be understated that the Bruins lost quite a bit of talent to the Draft this past offseason. however, that’s not to say that they aren’t without reinforcements for Linebackers Myles Jack (68 tackles) and Eric Kendricks (111 tackles) are among the best in the country at their position, while Junior Cornerback Ishmael Adams is a bonafide playmaker, returning a pair of interceptions for touchdowns this season. With that said, the criticism comes from the lack of big plays; a unit with so much talent should produce more than just a dozen turnovers and fifteen sacks. Then again, perhaps a date with their cross-town rivals is just what the doctor ordered; in their last two meetings with Southern Cal, UCLA has forced five turnovers, two interceptions and three recovered fumbles.