The Pac-12 title, implications for the College Football Playoff and bragging rights in the city of Los Angeles are all on the line on Saturday night when UCLA hosts USC in the biggest matchup for Week 12. The Bruins suffered a costly loss to Arizona last week, but a win over the Trojans would resurrect their hopes of playing for the Pac-12 title. USC has its sights set on contending for a spot in the four-team playoff, but coach Lincoln Riley’s squad still has several hurdles to clear and needs to win on Saturday night to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. With two conference losses already, UCLA’s path to the title game is more unsettled, but a win would certainly strengthen its position.
It hasn’t taken long for first-year coach Lincoln Riley to get USC on track. The Trojans finished a disappointing 4-8 last season, but Riley’s arrival, combined with several key additions from the portal, has immediately transformed this program into a playoff contender. A high-powered offense has guided USC to nine victories so far, including wins over Oregon State (17-14), Washington State (30-14), and Fresno State (45-17). The team’s only loss came at Utah (43-42) on Oct. 15. Although USC has yet to play several of the Pac-12’s top opponents, the meat of its schedule has arrived. After Saturday night, the Trojans get Notre Dame in Los Angeles, followed by (potentially) a date in the Pac-12 title game.
Chip Kelly’s started his tenure at UCLA with a 10-21 mark, but the program has showed significant improvement over the last two years. The Bruins went 8-4 last season and are 8-2 through 10 games in ’22. Similar to USC, a high-powered offense leads the way, guiding the team to wins over Washington (40-32), Utah (42-32), and blowouts of Colorado, Arizona State and Stanford. UCLA hopes to get revenge in the Pac-12 title game for a 45-30 loss to Oregon on Oct. 22, but the team’s path to the conference championship suffered a massive setback with a loss to Arizona (34-28) last week.
USC holds a 51-32-7 series edge over UCLA. The Trojans have won five out of the last seven against the Bruins. However, UCLA won 62-33 last season.
No. 7 USC at No. 16 UCLA
When USC Has the Ball
USC enters Saturday night’s game with the Pac-12’s No. 1 scoring offense (42.4 points a game) and is tied for first in yards per play (7.2). Also, Riley’s group is tied for first in the Pac-12 in plays of 40-plus yards (15), while two teams – Oregon State and Washington State – held the Trojans under six yards per play. This side of the ball has carried the Trojans all year and that won’t change on Saturday night. If USC is going to win against UCLA, Notre Dame and then the Pac-12 title game, the offense will need around 40 points to supplement a struggling defense.
It’s no secret what the strength of this unit is. Quarterback Caleb Williams followed Riley from Oklahoma to USC and is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy heading into Week 12 games. Williams’ arm talent has been on display in the Trojans’ passing attack that threatens all levels of the field. The sophomore has completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,010 yards and 31 touchdowns to just two picks. In addition to his ability to carve defenses up through the air, Williams’ mobility is another angle for defenses to account for. The sophomore has rushed for 283 yards and six scores, but his scrambling and mobility help to keep plays alive behind an offensive line that’s allowed 19 sacks this year.
Helping Williams elevate USC’s offense into one of the best in the nation is a deep group of receivers headlined by Jordan Addison (40 catches). He’s the go-to playmaker and should be closer to 100 percent after missing two games and being limited in another (Colorado) due to injury. Mario Williams is slated to return to the lineup after missing USC’s last two matchups, adding to a deep collection of weapons that includes Tahj Washington (33 catches), Brenden Rice (26), and Kyle Ford (12). Stopping the pass has been an issue all season for UCLA. The Bruins rank sixth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and have allowed 102 completions of 10-plus yards (ninth in the Pac-12). UCLA’s pass defense also ranks No. 108 nationally in success rate.
Keeping Williams upright in the pocket could be a challenge against an active UCLA front. A task that’s been made more difficult with the loss of running back Travis Dye to a season-ending injury he suffered against Colorado last Friday. Not only was Dye the team’s leading rusher, but he also played a key role in pass protection. The Bruins rank fifth in the Pac-12 with 25 sacks and fifth in tackles for a loss (51). Also, UCLA has held conference opponents to 3.9 yards per rush. Austin Jones (335) and Raleek Brown (148) will handle the bulk of the carries at running back.
With the firepower on USC’s sideline, UCLA’s defense isn’t likely to completely shut down Williams and Co. Instead, this unit has to find a way to make timely stops. The Bruins rank 11th in red zone defense, seventh on third downs and have forced only 14 turnovers. Winning in all three of those situations is key to slowing USC. An x-factor to watch: Coordinator Bill McGovern has been sidelined for the last two games due to a health issue. If McGovern is unable to coach on Saturday night, Clancy Pendergast will fill in as the defensive play-caller.
When UCLA Has the Ball
Similar to when USC has the ball, get ready for fireworks from the UCLA offense. The Bruins attack defenses a little differently than the Trojans, but Kelly’s group nearly matches Riley’s attack, as they enter Saturday night’s game averaging 39.5 points a game and 7.2 yards per snap. While USC leans on its high-powered passing attack, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet anchor an offense riding its ground game (240.1 per contest).
Stopping the run and getting UCLA into passing downs has to be USC’s top priority on Saturday night. Charbonnet leads all Pac-12 players with 956 yards in conference games, averaging 159.3 over six appearances in league play. In addition to the overall production, Charbonnet averages 8.1 yards per carry and has scored 12 times on the ground in Pac-12 games. Thompson-Robinson has added 463 yards and seven scores on the ground this year. The Trojans are allowing 138.1 rushing yards and 4.4 yards per carry in conference action but should get some reinforcement for the front with linebacker Eric Gentry returning from injury.
In his fifth year as the program’s starter, Thompson-Robinson is on pace for a career season (2,385 passing yards and 20 TDs) through the air. The senior is connecting on 71 percent of his passes and is tied for fifth among Pac-12 signal-callers in yards per attempt (8.2). Jake Bobo (43 receptions) and Kazmeir Allen (43) have been DTR’s go-to targets this year, but there’s quality depth with Logan Loya (13), Kam Brown (16), and tight end Michael Ezeike (15). USC’s secondary ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and has allowed just 13 passing scores through 10 games. However, as California (406 yards), Utah (424), and Arizona (380) showed, this unit is susceptible through the air.
With a tight game anticipated, a couple of takeaways could be huge. And that’s one area USC has thrived at (20 takeaways), while limiting teams in the red zone (third in the Pac-12).
If you like offense and a side of major implications for the Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff, then Saturday night’s matchup in the Rose Bowl should be a must-see game. Look for both offenses to have plenty of success in moving the ball, with the outcome likely to come down to a few timely stops on defense – potentially in the red zone or on third downs. Holding these offenses to a field goal would be a win, and turnovers could be huge with this matchup (on paper) appearing to be even. The last team with the ball might win this one.