The Victory Bell, bowl eligibility at stake for the Trojans
So, how are things going in Los Angeles this college football season?
USC and UCLA have a combined 13 losses entering this season's crosstown rivalry game, the most ever in its 88-year history.— Joey Kaufman (@joeyrkaufman) November 12, 2018
A dubious bit of history in a rivalry that's featured some of the most memorable games in college football lore, to be sure. Even in recent years, when only one game in 10 was decided by single digits — last season's 28-23 USC win — the crosstown showdown still maintained an aura of importance.
The 2018 matchup marks the first in five years without any realistic implications on the Pac-12 South race. UCLA (2-8, 2-5 Pac-12) is playing for bragging rights, the Victory Bell, and the opportunity to claim its stake to denying a bitter rival a bowl bid. USC (5-5, 4-4) needs to extend its streak over the Bruins to four games and maintain head coach Clay Helton's clean sheet against UCLA in order to lock up bowl eligibility. Doing so this week is of the utmost importance, considering the challenge the Trojans face in the regular-season finale against an undefeated Notre Dame team with designs on the College Football Playoff.
USC at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Run to the finish line
Neither UCLA nor USC has been particularly proficient at stopping the run this season. The Trojans rank ninth in the Pac-12, allowing 4.1 yards per carry, while UCLA ranks 11th at 4.7 yards per carry. Both defenses prepare for explosive ball carriers this week in UCLA's Joshua Kelley, and USC's Aca'Cedric Ware. The Bruins have the advantage in this regard, by virtue of Ware sustaining a shoulder injury last week.
Ware's been electric this season, but his pursuit of 1,000 yards has been stymied due to lingering injury concerns. USC's inconsistent offense needs its feature back as close to 100 percent as possible — particularly with fellow ball carriers Stephen Carr and Vavae Malapeai injured in their own right.
Of no coincidence, USC played two of its worst games (200 yards allowed at Utah, 283 yards yielded vs. Arizona State) with inside linebacker Cameron Smith nursing an injury. The Trojans were great with Smith back in the lineup at Oregon State, holding a Beavers offense featuring 1,200-yard rusher Jermar Jefferson to 31 yards, and limited Cal to 114 in last week's loss.
It's not so much how many yards USC allowed as when it did so. Cal's ability to move the ball in the second half made the difference, including on a fourth-down conversation via 14-yard Patrick Laird carry that ended the game. The drive was reminiscent of how Kelley salted away a 31-30 win for UCLA over Arizona last month, the Bruins' last victory of the season, and only W at the Rose Bowl.
2. Sustained drives
Long stretches of offensive stagnation plagued USC throughout the season, reaching a head against Cal. Costly turnovers made the difference, denying USC an opportunity to build a three-score lead before halftime; fueling the Golden Bears' drive to take the lead; and finally, snuffing out any opportunity for a game-winning possession.
Last week's performance cast a harsh light on an ongoing issue, but it wasn't anything that hadn't vexed the Trojans before — nor was it much different than one of UCLA's greater frustrations in Year 1 under head coach Chip Kelly.
UCLA took Arizona State to the wire last week, despite an offensive drought that lasted 30 minutes of game clock. In that time, the Bruins had possessions of 13 plays, ending on downs; 10 plays, resulting in a missed field goal; two three-and-outs; and an interception. Only a pick-six by Darnay Holmes, who has been an absolute star this season, provided UCLA any scoreboard relief.
Finding a way to sustain drives, and thus not tiring out their own defenses, is vital. UCLA will attack with Kelley, and the dependable tight end Caleb Wilson (a former USC prospect), but needs another receiving threat beyond Wilson or Theo Howard to step up. USC's own anemic passing attack isn't lacking for options, especially if Michael Pittman returns to the lineup after missing last week.
At issue for USC is avoiding self-inflicted errors that kill drives, like the repeated center-to-quarterback exchanges between Toa Lobendahn and JT Daniels that have been a consistent source of frustration.
3. Special teams plays
USC turned the tide in its favor against the Bruins last year when Pittman returned a punt for a touchdown on a brilliantly executed fake. The brainchild of special teams coordinator John Baxter spoke to his value in the coaching staff, a point Clay Helton reemphasized this week when he called Baxter "the best" special teams coach in the country.
Conversely, UCLA's Kelly does not believe in the role — a philosophy that gained attention after the Nov. 3 loss at Oregon, when a series of special teams miscues dug the Bruins a deep hole.
UCLA has an outstanding punter in Stefan Flintoft, and a reliable placekicker in J.J. Molson. Special-teams successes have outweighed missteps for the Bruins in 2018, but the conflicting philosophies between the two programs will be an intriguing story Saturday in the Rose Bowl.
The gap between UCLA and USC is narrow, despite the disparity in record. The rivals have struggled in similar areas, as well, including spotty quarterback play, fueled in part by freshman growth, and at UCLA, by the job's back-and-forth. Veteran Wilton Speight could make the start, but first-year starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson might, too.
Each has strength in its defense. UCLA's secondary is outstanding, combining proven commodities Adarius Pickett and Darnay Holmes with emerging stars Quentin Lake and Elijah Gates. USC's front seven has seen similar emergence from youngsters Jay Tufele and Jordan Iosefe.
Both teams have had issues with finishing games much slower than they start. For UCLA, it's due to a lack of depth. For USC, it's the result of offensive inconsistency.
In other words, the two should be evenly matched. It won't likely be a pretty game, but it should be competitive. USC's slightly deeper roster could be the difference, extending the program's winning streak against the Bruins under Clay Helton. If the Trojans fail to make it 4-0 under Helton, however, the chatter among naysayers will grow to a crescendo before Notre Dame week.
Prediction: USC 24, UCLA 17