The annual battle for bragging rights in Los Angeles resumes on Saturday night when USC visits the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA. In addition to the intra-city rivalry, positioning within the Pac-12 South is up for grabs. Both teams still have South Division title hopes and are part of a four-team group at the top of the division with two losses.
Since a two-game losing streak in early October, UCLA has rebounded with four consecutive victories. The Bruins won two of those games by three points or less (California and Colorado) but dominated Arizona (17-7) and won at Washington (44-30). UCLA was pegged by some as a potential playoff team at the start of the year, and while it’s a longshot the Bruins reach that level, coach Jim Mora’s team has played better in recent weeks and has a realistic shot to finish 10-2 with an appearance in the Pac-12 title game.
USC has experienced its share of inconsistencies this year, losing by six points to Boston College, by four to Arizona State on a last-second Hail Mary and a 24-21 defeat at Utah. However, coach Steve Sarkisian’s team defeated Arizona 28-26 in mid-October and has scored at least 38 points in three out of its last four games. Depth is still an issue for the Trojans. However, this roster has a talented starting 22 and would be a tough out for Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship (if these two teams meet in early December).
USC owns a 46-30-7 series edge over UCLA. The Bruins have won two in a row over the Trojans, including a 35-14 blowout victory at USC last season. However, the Trojans won five straight in this series from 2007-11.
USC at UCLA
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: UCLA -4
UCLA’s Key to Victory: Limit Big Plays in USC’s Passing Game
Considering the offensive firepower in the Pac-12, it’s easy to overlook what USC has done this year. Sarkisian has continued to push the right buttons in quarterback Cody Kessler’s development, as the junior has passed for 2,919 yards and 29 scores this season. Additionally, Kessler has tossed only three picks and is completing 70.2 percent of his passes. The Trojans have connected on 16 passing plays of 30 yards or more, with receiver Nelson Agholor catching five of those throws. Agholor has back-to-back games of at least 200 receiving yards and has at least 100 yards in four consecutive matchups. The junior isn’t the only option for Kessler, as freshman JuJu Smith and junior George Farmer are also viable targets. Running back Buck Allen was held under 100 yards against California, but he recorded six 100-yard efforts in a row prior to last Thursday. UCLA’s secondary will have its hands full trying to stop Agholor on Saturday night, especially with a pass rush that has generated just 13 sacks in Pac-12 contests. The Bruins have allowed only 12 passing scores in seven Pac-12 games this year. If UCLA can’t get to Kessler, its secondary is going to have trouble containing Agholor and the passing attack for all four quarters. But even if Kessler throws for 300 yards, the Bruins have to limit the overall damage and prevent any big plays.
USC’s Key to Victory: Keep QB Brett Hundley in the Pocket
It’s no coincidence UCLA’s recent uptick on offense has been paired with quarterback Brett Hundley’s surge in rushing yardage. Hundley recorded only 122 yards on the ground through the first five games but has 442 yards over the last five contests. Hundley rushed for 131 in a huge win over Arizona, while the junior added 110 on 12 attempts in an overtime victory at Colorado. Hundley’s ability to make plays with his legs is critical with a young offensive line still developing in 2014. The Bruins have allowed 30 sacks this year, but this unit has played better in recent weeks, allowing only six sacks on Hundley since Oct. 18. USC will challenge the UCLA offensive line, as the Trojans have recorded at least two sacks in seven consecutive games. End Leonard Williams is among the nation’s best defenders and has forced three fumbles in 10 contests. USC's defensive line should have an edge over UCLA's offensive line, which is where Hundley's mobility could come into play. However, the Trojans need to keep him in the pocket to limit his rushing yards and chances at making plays when things break down around the line of scrimmage. If USC wins the battle at the point of attack, UCLA's offense is going to have a hard time scoring points on Saturday night.
This is a tough game to get a read on in terms of a prediction. UCLA seems to have turned a corner in recent weeks, while USC has had trouble finishing games. Statistically, both defenses are fairly even. UCLA limits opponents to 5.19 yards per play, while USC holds offenses to a 5.15 per-play average. The Trojans are better in terms of points allowed, limiting opponents to 22.9 each contest, while the Bruins allow 29.6 per game. USC has had more success at forcing turnovers and getting to the quarterback, which are two areas of focus for Sarkisian’s team on Saturday night. UCLA has won two in a row in this series and can make it three if it protects quarterback Brett Hundley and allows him to make plays on the ground, while the defense has to find a way to slow down quarterback Cody Kessler and receiver Nelson Agholor. As we mentioned above, this one is a coin flip. And perhaps home-field advantage is worth a point or two in UCLA’s favor.