The Victory Bell is at stake once again as the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins hold their annual clash on Saturday night, this time in the Rose Bowl. The undefeated and 15th-ranked Trojans (4-0) are one victory away from an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game and a shot at a New Year's Six bowl. Fittingly, standing in USC's way is none other than the crosstown rival Bruins.
UCLA (3-2) is enjoying something of a resurgence under Chip Kelly as the only two losses were by a total of nine points on the road against Colorado and Oregon. A Bruins victory on Saturday night could put the Buffaloes in the Pac-12 title game, provided they beat Utah earlier in the day. A loss by both USC and Colorado would activate tiebreaker scenarios involving the College Football Playoff rankings, but the Trojans have a chance to make that a moot point if they can beat the Bruins for the second straight year.
USC leads the overall rivalry series 48-32-7 (Trojans later vacated their victories in 2004, '05) and won decisively last year, 52-35.
No. 15 USC at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -2.5
When USC Has the Ball
So, last week it was turnovers that needed to stop and they did. But as this team is wont to do, something else popped up. The Trojans managed a total of five rushing yards against the 98th-ranked rushing defense in the nation. Let me repeat that: USC only managed five yards on the ground against a Washington State defense that had given up a total of 391 in its first two games. Whatever offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is doing with the running game, it's like he and offensive line coach Tim Drevno are two ships passing in the night. Something has to drastically change.
As successful as the Trojans' aerial attack led by Kedon Slovis has been, they can't always rely on one wide receiver to carry the load. On Sunday, it was Amon-Ra St. Brown's four touchdown catches in one quarter in the win over the Cougars. Those also were his only catches of the game (for 35 yards). Impressive efficiency for sure, but not something the offense can or should count on. And there's certainly no need for Slovis to lock in on one target either, not with the bevy of weapons he has at his disposal.
On the other side, you have a UCLA defense that has done a good job of limiting the damage done on the scoreboard. The Bruins are third in the Pac-12 at 24.8 points allowed per game (USC is currently first at 21.8). The Bruins have been a little more susceptible against the pass in terms of yards allowed but nine of the 15 touchdowns they have surrendered have come on the ground. One reason why UCLA has been able to bend but not break is a pass rush that is tops in the conference with 18 sacks. Caleb Johnson and Osa Odighizuwa have combined for nearly half (8.5) of those and seven other defenders have registered at least half a sack thus far. If the Trojans continue to lean more on throwing the ball rather than running it, that could play to the Bruins' defensive strength.
When UCLA Has the Ball
The Bruins' offense goes through dual-threat quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He's missed two games but when he's been on the field, he's been effective as a passer and a runner. He's averaging 230 passing yards per game with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions, and he's third on the team in rushing while averaging 5.8 yards per carry with three scores on the ground. Thompson-Robinson doesn't do it all by himself, however, as Demetric Felton is third in the Pac-12 in rushing with 578 yards and he's scored six total touchdowns. Duke transfer Brittain Brown (6.3 ypc, 3 TDs) also is making the most of his opportunities in the backfield.
For USC, its secondary has been nearly unstoppable this year. Guys like Talanoa Hufanga and Olaijah Griffin have stepped up and shown out when they've been given a chance. The defensive backfield will need to do its part to limit UCLA from hitting on too many big plays through the air, so the defensive line can try and get some pressure on Thompson-Robinson and focus their attention on slowing the Bruins down on the ground. If the Trojans can replicate what they have done in their past two games — holding Utah and Washington State to 184 total rushing yards — they'll stand a good chance of keeping UCLA's offense in check.
It's almost a fool's errand to try and predict contests between USC and UCLA. Whenever you think one team is vastly superior, the other shows up and gives them all they could handle and then some. Expect Chip Kelly and the Bruins to give the Trojans everything they can handle, especially with the other ramifications of this game for USC.
The close line gives one even more pause. Also, taking into consideration the problems the Trojans have had running the football, there are some major concerns headed into Saturday night. Ultimately, USC is likely playing with house money at this point. The Trojans have been very fortunate to escape some of their games with a win and that streak probably comes to an end in the Rose Bowl against a highly motivated UCLA team.
Prediction: UCLA 35, USC 33
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.