8:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: USC -2.0, Over/Under: 76.5
As the regular season races toward its conclusion, there is still a battle of Los Angeles to be decided as the seventh-ranked USC Trojans face off against the sixteenth-ranked UCLA Bruins in this crucial Pac-12 matchup from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. How ironic is it that in the waning months of the Pac-12 as we’ve come to know it, that the conference as a whole has seen a resurgence? Indeed, SIX of its residents have been named in the latest edition of the College Football Playoff Rankings, more than any other league in the country, including the mighty SEC (5). First among their brethren is USC (9-1, 7-1 in Pac-12), who along with their opponent tonight will be embarking on a new venture, joining the Big 10 in 2024. It’s ironic that after enduring what has been nothing short of a down period for one of the most storied programs in the nation, that the Trojans appear to have turned the corner just before leaving the league that they’ve called home since 1968. However, that’s precisely what has happened; Southern Cal made waves in the offseason in poaching (Head Coach) Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, with the highly regarded 39-year-old looking to transform the men of Troy back into the powerhouse that they were during the first decade of the 2000s. Since Pete Carroll left back in 2010, USC had burned through three head coaches (and another four of the interim variety) en route to amassing an 87-54 (.617) record with just one Pac-12 title to show for it (2017), and most importantly ZERO appearances in the Playoff. Riley on the other hand, led the Sooners to four consecutive Big XII titles, including three trips to the Playoff, while raising a pair of Heisman winners during his tenure in Norman. Not long after accepting the Trojans’ offer, he began making excellent use of the transfer portal, adding established upperclassman such as (Senior Tailback) Travis Dye, (reigning Biletnikoff winner) Jordan Addison, and most notably, (former Oklahoma Quarterback) Caleb Williams, who made waves in following him west. As you can imagine, this sizable influx of talent has led to one of the most prolific offenses in the country; Southern Cal ranks third in the FBS in points scored (42.4) on a whopping 499.4 total yards (7th in FBS), including 316.9 through the air (10th in FBS) and another 182.5 on the ground (42nd in FBS), all the while parlaying to an explosive 7.01 yards per play (7th in FBS). Williams (pictured below), who was nothing short of dynamic as a freshman under Riley’s watch in Norman, has been even more dangerous in Los Angeles, completing 63.7% of his passes for 3,010 yards on 8.8 yards per attempt with thirty-one touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions, while rushing for another 283 yards and six scores. Granted, Dye was lost for the season recently with a knee injury, but there has no shortage of speed and athleticism on this side of the field for the Trojans, who shown throughout the campaign that they are capable of both yards and points on the board in very short order. With that said, this isn’t necessarily a complete team by any means, for the Defense clearly isn’t of a national championship caliber; it will likely take Riley and (Defensive Coordinator) Alex Grinch another offseason of recruiting and transfers to build this unit into what it needs to be, which isn’t a group that is yielding 24.4 points per game (51st in FBS) on nearly 400 total yards. Sure, they’ve managed to get plenty of sacks (32) and takeaways (21), but there have been a few occasions in which they fell considerably short of living up to their hype. During a recent three-game stretch which featured their lone defeat of the season to Utah (43-42), along with close calls against the likes of Arizona and California, USC was torched for 115 points (38.3) on 524.6 yards, including 403.3 versus the pass, which are MAJOR outliers when compared to the rest of the campaign. What was the difference, you ask? Well, takeaways are generally the x-factor for most teams, and the Trojans are no different, for in those three outings, they enjoyed a plus-2 turnovers differential opposed to a staggering plus-16 in the other seven contests.
When we last saw USC, they managed to right the proverbial ship in a favorable matchup against struggling Colorado under the Friday night lights at the LA Memorial Coliseum. The hosts started quickly with a safety and responded to a Buffaloes field goal with twenty-four unanswered points to end the first half of play. The visitors would eventually find the end zone midway through the third quarter, only for the Trojans to erupt for another twenty-one unanswered points to put the affair well out of reach, eventually ending in a comfortable 55-17 victory. The Buffs simply could not keep up with the men of Troy, who outgained them 531 to 259 in total yardage, with the passing game proving to be biggest difference. Williams was rarely hassled in this one, completing 14-of-26 passes for 268 yards, three touchdowns and what was just his second interception of the season along with another two scores of the rushing variety, before his understudy Miller Moss took over to toss a touchdown pass of his own in garbage time. Grinch’s defense totaled three sacks and a pair of takeaways, including a forced fumble from (Sophomore Defensive Tackle) Tuli Tuipulotu and an interception courtesy of Sophomore Safety) Calen Bullock, his fourth of the year. Looking to tonight’s matchup with the Bruins, Southern Cal lead the all-time series by a considerable margin (51-33-7), winning seventeen of the last twenty-three meetings dating back to 1999, including five of the last seven. With that said, they’re just 3-3 against the spread in the last ten meetings with UCLA and 3-2 against the spread when favored against their crosstown rivals. In fact, USC have struggled when branded a small favorite, failing to cover in five consecutive outings in which they are favorite of three points or less, which is the case tonight. The last time that the Trojans traveled to Pasadena, they rallied with twenty fourth quarter points including the game-winning touchdown with just sixteen seconds left on the clock to earn a 43-38 victory two years ago. Tonight’s showdown at the Rose Bowl will be their final conference matchup of the season in lieu of a potential trip to the Pac-12 Championship in Las Vegas in two weeks’ time, which they could clinch with a win over the Bruins. Riley’s troops currently hold a one-game lead over the likes of Oregon, Utah, Washington, and UCLA, with the Utes owning the tiebreaker by virtue of that aforementioned loss. On the injury front, we already touched upon the loss of Dye in the Backfield, though we could see the return of (Sophomore Receiver) Mario Williams and (Sophomore Edge-Rusher) Eric Gentry, with each missing the last three games with respective injuries. Following tonight’s annual battle of Los Angeles, Southern Cal will close out the regular season with another annual battle, as they host Notre Dame next weekend.
Meanwhile, sitting just one game behind their bitter nemesis in the league standings is UCLA (8-2, 5-2 in Pac-12), who are in the midst of what has clearly been their best season under (Head Coach) Chip Kelly. After his time in the NFL turned into an unmitigated disaster, particularly his latter stay in San Francisco, Kelly returned to the collegiate ranks replacing Jim Mora in Los Angeles, who was fired following a second consecutive losing campaign. Indeed, rebuilding the Bruins has proven to be anything but a quick fix, with the former Eddie Robinson award winner (2010) going just 10-21 (.322) in his first three years with the program. However, 2021 saw a breakthrough for the 58-year-old, who led his side to eight wins, which would’ve resulted in an appearance in a bowl had it not been called off due to COVID restrictions. Now, UCLA has already matched their total of victories from a year ago with two games remaining on the schedule and an opportunity (though slim) to feature in their first Pac-12 Championship Game since 2011 and hopefully compete for their first conference crown since 1998. So, what in the name of Troy Aikman has happened to the Bruins, you ask? Well, stop us if you’ve ever heard this before: it takes TIME for coaches to settle in and implement their vision at a school. Going from Mora’s standard take on the West Coast Offense to Kelly’s up-tempo spread-option attack is night and !@#$%^ day from both a tactical and personnel standpoint, with the transition needing a number of recruiting classes to successfully facilitate matters. This is Kelly’s fifth year in Pasadena, with his team looking similar to the powerhouses that he raised when he competed for national titles at Oregon; the Bruins rank tenth in the FBS in points per game (39.5) and fifth overall in total offense (504.0), including 264.0 yards through the air and another 240.0 on the ground. (Fifth-year Senior Quarterback) Dorian Thompson-Robinson has exhibited a stellar control of Kelly’s playbook, completing a career-high 71.0% of his passes enroute to passing for 2,385 yards on 8.2 yards per attempt with twenty touchdowns opposed to just four interceptions, while rushing for another 462 yards and seven scores. (Senior Tailback) Zach Charbonnet (pictured below) has been the other constant for the bruins on this side of the football, with the former Michigan transfer posting a personal-best of 1,145 rushing yards on a very healthy 7.5 yards per carry and thirteen touchdowns, while becoming more of a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield with twenty-nine receptions for 270 yards. Indeed, balance has been the key for this unit, who have amassed both 200+ passing and rushing yards in five games thus far, while coming only a single yard away from doing so a sixth. With that said, there is still work to be done on the defensive side of things, which is where UCLA aren’t close to being playoff worthy. (Defensive Coordinator) Bill McGovern is in his first season since arriving from Boston College, and though he has a wealth of NFL experience, it hasn’t been the smoothest of sailing in Los Angeles. The Bruins rank seventieth in points allowed (26.4) and have been gashed for an average of 378.8 total yards per game, including well over 400 yards in FIVE of their last six games. Furthermore, they haven’t enjoyed the outrageous turnover differential that their instate rivals have, racking up fourteen takeaways for a margin of plus-3. With that said, they’ll be looking to bounce back from their worst loss of the campaign, a 34-28 shocker at home to Arizona, which we’re about to get into in three… two… one…
When we last saw UCLA, their chances of advancing to that elusive Pac-12 title game took a SERIOUS hit in that aforementioned defeat at the hands of Arizona, which was just their second win in conference play this season. Indeed, the hosts fell behind 14-0 early as the Wildcats put together a flurry that took Kelly’s troops by surprise. With that said, the Bruins would eventually strike back with fourteen unanswered points of their own before the two sides exchanged touchdowns all the way into the fourth quarter where the home side clung to a slim 28-24 lead. And this is where things spiraled out of control, as Arizona took the ensuing possession eighty-two yards downfield in eight plays to retake the lead 31-28, with UCLA undoubtedly feeling the pressure with an inexplicable four-and-out deep within their own territory. Kelly’s gamble failed, as the Wildcats booted a 23-yard field goal leaving just 1:06 on the clock for the Bruins to rally, though their final drive ended at their opponent’s 29-yard line with four consecutive incomplete passes courtesy of Thompson-Robinson. In the end, both sides amassed over 430 yards of total offense, only for a series of self-inflicted wounds to ultimately lay the hosts low; UCLA lost a fumble, missed a field goal, and saw those final two drives end on downs, leaving far too many points on the table against a program that is in the midst of what is nothing short of an arduous rebuild. Thompson-Robinson completed 26-of-39 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown but was largely kept in check with just twenty-three rushing yards aided by three sacks. Charbonnet, on the other hand, pummeled the ‘Cats throughout the affair, rushing for 181 yards and three touchdowns on twenty-four carries, while reeling in nine catches another for thirty-eight yards. We can’t express just how damaging this one was for Kelly & Co, who need to in out and receive a lot of help in order to book a trip to Las Vegas; the Bruins trail the Trojans by 1.5 games, while both Oregon and Utah sit one full game ahead of them in the league standings, with tiebreakers coming into effect with a head-to-head loss over to the former and a victory over the latter. Looking tonight’s battle of Los Angeles, UCLA are looking for consecutive victories over Southern Cal for the first time since winning three in a row from 2012 to 2014. When they met last year at the Coliseum, the visitors hung SIXTY-TWO points on their bitter adversaries, the most that they had ever scored in this rivalry that reaches all the way back to 1929. From a betting standpoint, UCLA 6-4 against the spread in their last ten home games and in their last ten as an underdog, covering just one of their last three meetings with USC at the Rose Bowl. Furthermore, they’re just 2-3 against the spread in their last five encounters when branded as an underdog. There are however a few trends working in their favor tonight for the Bruins have covered five consecutive games in which they’ve been labeled as a home underdog between 0.5-3.0 points, which is the case in this particular matchup, while also covering four straight contests in which they’re coming off a game in which they accumulated over 450 total yards. Though there is this: Kelly’s outfit have failed to cover the spread against four straight teams with winning records.