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USC Trojans vs. UCLA Bruins Preview and Prediction

Ronald Jones II

Ronald Jones II

Every year since 1929 — and in some years, twice — UCLA and USC have met on the football field in competition. Saturday marks the 86th installment of the series, sometimes referred to as the Crosstown Rivalry.

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No matter the label applied to it, the showdown between Los Angeles' only football-playing, Div. I universities is one of the most heated rivalries in college football. It's also been one of the most intriguing at various times, including a Game of the Century that very much lived up to the hype a half-century ago.

This year's edition takes on a different look.

Just about every year since Jim Mora first arrived, UCLA entered the Crosstown Rivalry in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title. The 2013 game is the lone exception. In 2015, the meeting was a winner-take-all affair, and also the first loss to USC on Mora's resume.

A Pac-12 South title is well out of reach for the Bruins this time around, as they instead play for their bowl lives against a suddenly streaking Trojan bunch. But the stakes are no less high for UCLA.

Playing spoiler to a USC team now sitting at No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings would give an otherwise disappointing season for UCLA a silver lining.

USC at UCLA

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 10:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: USC -13

Three Things to Watch

1. A Defensive Struggle
Both USC and UCLA have endured their shares of struggles at various points this season. A constant for both, even in down stretches, has been their defenses.

The Trojans played two quarters of outstanding defense even in a blowout loss to Alabama Week 1. The Bruins were about as effective against Washington State's air raid as any team has been thus far in 2016. Both feature deep and athletic secondaries, and have some of the most intimidating pass rushers in the Pac-12 — Takkarist McKinley for UCLA, Porter Gustin for USC.

Expect a low-scoring affair, at least by Pac-12 standards. The offense that can wear down its opponent first has the upper hand.

Finding any semblance of a run game has vexed UCLA throughout this 2016 campaign, though the Bruins showed signs of life last week in a win over Oregon State with 163 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

Against a USC rushing defense ranked No. 37 in the nation, don't expect the Bruins to muster much on the ground. But in the same vein, the Trojans will have their hands full against a UCLA defense surrendering just 4.1 yards per carry.

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Running back Ronald Jones II has been critical to the Trojans' recent six-game winning streak. Slowing him down is of paramount importance for the Bruins to be able to hang around.

2. Tight End Showcase
Some of the nation's very best pass-catching tight ends will be in action Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. For USC, the emergence of redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe has been almost as much of a revelation as Sam Darnold's rise at quarterback.

A third of Imatorbhebhe's receptions have gone for touchdowns, with all four coming since Oct. 8. Trojans head coach Clay Helton noted Imatorbhebhe played wide receiver in high school, which makes him an especially difficult cover for linebackers. However, his size can overwhelm cornerbacks.

UCLA uses Nate Iese in similar fashion.

Whether Josh Rosen for the first half of the season, or Mike Fafaul in the back half, Iese's been a favorite target for UCLA quarterbacks. He's one of the most reliable big-play threats the Bruins have, but can be just as vital as a possession receiver.

Because Iese functions almost like a receiver, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast may have to use Iman Marshall in coverage. Marshall's the biggest of USC's defensive backs, and might provide the most physical challenge to the Bruin tight end.

3. Quarterback Disruption
An improved pass rush has buoyed the USC defense amid its winning streak. The Trojans' ability to get to opposing quarterbacks, whether against Arizona State, Colorado or Washington, proved vital to some big wins.

UCLA's protection has improved has the season's progressed, in part due to a slightly reshaped look since Fafaul replaced the injured Rosen. It's somewhat similar to USC's evolution since Darnold replaced Week 1 starter Max Browne, as both offenses have embraced more spread principles.

The Bruins need to generate turnovers to set up their offense with favorable field position, and a continuous blitz on the freshman Darnold is essential. McKinley's emerged as an All-America-caliber pass rusher, and both Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Kenny Young have grown into effective sidekicks.

Final Analysis

Despite its underwhelming overall record, UCLA hasn't been bad this season, far from it. Five of the Bruins' six losses were by single digits, and four against teams currently ranked in the College Football Playoff top 25 — Texas A&M, Stanford, Washington State, Utah.

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The only double-digit loss — two weeks ago at Colorado — was by 10 points. The Buffaloes are the fifth nationally ranked team (and the highest at No. 10) to add a notch to the Bruins’ loss column this season.

UCLA's been repeatedly competitive with quality opponents, yet lacked the necessary element to get over the top. Here comes No. 13 USC to continue that trend.

The Trojans are riding high off of an upset of Washington, and their Pac-12 South title hopes — dead and buried two months ago — walk again. The scenario that gets USC to Santa Clara is hardly unrealistic: Colorado loses to Washington State this weekend, but beats Utah next, while the Trojans handle UCLA.

That makes Saturday's affair both high-pressure, but also a potential letdown spot.

UCLA's stout defense will make points difficult to come by, but the Bruins' lack of a rushing attack will keep the offense from sustaining drives, and ultimately wear down UCLA on the opposite side of the ball. See the September loss to Stanford for reference.

Prediction: USC 27, UCLA 17

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.