Bragging rights in Los Angeles and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship will be on the line when USC and UCLA meet on Saturday afternoon. This season has not gone according to plan for the Trojans, as most expected USC to contend for the national title and for quarterback Matt Barkley to rank among the top Heisman contenders. However, USC has slipped to a 7-3 record and with the Bruins and a date against Notre Dame coming up, a 7-5 final mark isn’t out of the question.
While USC has been a disappointment, UCLA has been one of the top surprises in the Pac-12. Although there was a lot of returning talent, it was uncertain how it would mesh with the new coaching staff. New coach Jim Mora has done a good job of blending the talent with the new schemes on both sides of the ball and has the Bruins poised to make a return trip to the Pac-12 title game.
USC has dominated this series in recent years, as UCLA’s last victory came in 2006 in Pasadena. The Trojans have won 12 out of the last 13 games against the Bruins, including a 50-0 shutout last season.
When the USC Trojans have the ball:
Even though USC quarterback Matt Barkley hasn’t had the year most expected, he has still thrown for 2,972 yards and 33 touchdowns. That’s the positive. The bad news? Barkley has already exceeded his interception total from last year (7) with 13 so far this season. The senior has thrown seven picks over the last three games, which has led some to wonder if he’s pressing too much with the Trojans struggling to reach expectations.
Despite the turnovers and not meeting preseason expectations, the USC passing attack is one of the toughest to stop in college football. Sophomore receiver Marqise Lee has played his way into the Heisman mix over the last few weeks and ranks second nationally with 9.8 receptions per game. Lee has at least 10 receptions in each of his last three games and torched Arizona for 345 yards and two touchdowns. While Lee has thrived, Robert Woods has taken a step back this season. The junior has only 61 receptions and has failed to record at least 100 yards in each of his last three contests. Even though Woods’ numbers have dropped, he remains one of the Pac-12’s top targets. The Trojans also have capable weapons in tight end Xavier Grimble and freshman receiver Nelson Agholor.
UCLA’s secondary has been under fire this year, allowing 266.4 yards per game. Although the Bruins will give up some yards against the pass, this defense can get after the quarterback (averaging 3.7 sacks per game) and has held opponents to just 24.7 points per game.
USC running back Silas Redd did not play in last week’s win over Arizona State but expects to see snaps against UCLA. The junior leads the Trojans with 732 yards and nine touchdowns, while backup Curtis McNeal rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns in Redd’s absence last week. The Bruins are allowing 144.6 yards per game on the ground, but USC has a tendency to rely too much on the pass, which has limited the opportunities for Redd and McNeal this year.
The best way for the Bruins to slow down USC’s offense will be to get pressure on Barkley. Stanford’s 3-4 attack gave the Trojans fits earlier this year, and UCLA should be able to use a similar approach on Saturday.
When the UCLA Bruins have the ball:
The key to UCLA’s improvement on offense in 2012 has been the play of quarterback Brett Hundley. The redshirt freshman is completing 69 percent of his throws and has tossed only nine picks on 329 attempts. In addition to Hundley’s emergence, coordinator Noel Mazzone has been the perfect hire to run the Bruins’ offense. Hundley’s favorite target has been Shaquelle Evans (39 receptions), but Joseph Fauria, Steven Manfro and freshman Jordan Payton have been key players in UCLA’s arsenal.
Although running back Johnathan Franklin has yet to match his back-to-back 100-yard efforts since the first two weeks of the season, the senior has 1,270 yards and eight touchdowns and has 24 receptions for 276 yards and two scores. Franklin has two 100-yard games in his last three contests and ranks sixth nationally with an average of 127 yards per game.
Outside of giving up 426 yards and five touchdowns to Oregon’s rushing attack, USC’s run defense has played well this season. Take out the defensive debacle against the Ducks, and the Trojans have allowed only six rushing scores through nine contests. USC’s defensive line has also been active in getting to the quarterback, recording 37 sacks this year. In UCLA’s two losses this year, Franklin combined to rush for 147 yards. If the Trojans can slow down Franklin and keep him under 100 yards, they should win this game.
Spread offenses have given USC’s defense the most trouble in 2012, and this is another tricky matchup for the Trojans. Hundley isn’t as dynamic of a runner as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, but he has 272 yards and six touchdowns on 111 carries this season. Combine Hundley’s mobility and Franklin’s big-play ability and USC will have its hands full trying to stop this offense. The Trojans allowed 43 points to Mazzone’s offense last year at Arizona State but should have a better idea of what to expect in 2012.
Expect plenty of points in this matchup. With the Pac-12 South title on the line, both teams will get their best shot from the other squad. Even though USC has been a disappointment this year, this is its last chance to rally and erase some of the bad feelings from 2012. UCLA is clearly on the right track under Jim Mora but will fall just short of making a return trip to the Pac-12 title game.
Prediction: USC 38, UCLA 34
by Steven Lassan
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