Last week, UCLA ended their three game winning streak in dispiriting fashion, as they got absolutely crushed by the Utah Utes. It was a complete devastation and UCLA looked terrible, but at this point I’m not going to dwell on it too much. UCLA has been a generally bad team this year, and they were facing a College Football Playoff contender. To be honest, something would have been off if UCLA had won that game. For now, it’s on to the next one, and that just happens to be the Victory Bell matchup: UCLA vs USC, the battle for Los Angeles. And in a sport where regional rivalries are increasingly cast to the side in favor of focus on the national playoff, this one means everything for the residents of SoCal.
Last week, I mentioned that UCLA was beginning a three-game stretch that would be their toughest and most important of the season if they had any hopes of getting to the Pac-12 Championship. The first two games were tough road trips to Utah, and then to USC. Looking ahead, I didn’t expect the Bruins to win either one of those games. UCLA lost last week, and I’m still not expecting them to beat SC this week. Nonetheless, here are the matchups where they’ll have to excel if they hope to have a chance in this one.
3 Key UCLA Matchups vs USC
1. UCLA Secondary vs USC Passing Attack
Stopping this SC team starts with stopping the pass. It’s an air raid offense, with first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and first-year quarterback Kedon Slovis at the helm, and the results have been phenomenal. They pass a lot, and they get a lot of yards while doing it. Their most formidable weapon is Michael Pittman Jr., a future NFL wide receiver who has just about all the tools you want at the position. He can run fast, he’s tall, he can make big-time acrobatic catches, and he’s a great route runner. If UCLA leaves him one on one, they’re going to get burned.
UCLA’s pass defense has been pretty bad this year. Honestly, if I were UCLA, I’d drop eight into coverage for most of the game, and play soft. Make Slovis go on long drives, and hope he makes a mistake trying to thread the needle while doing so. Slovis has a gunslinger mentality and is prone to throwing the ball into coverage. It has at times resulted in spectacular plays, but he’ll give you opportunities at the ball if you make him throw it too many times. And because of their philosophy, USC is likely to abandon the run and continue to spread it out and put the ball into Slovis’s hands. Making them drive the field is your best bet (with selective blitzing here and there if needed). At the end of the day, if you give this SC offense the big play, they’re going to take it.
And however they choose to play the Trojans, UCLA will have to tackle better than they did last week, one of the worst tackling performances I’ve seen in a while.
2. UCLA Offensive Line vs USC Front Seven
UCLA’s o-line started the year a mess and improved as the season went on. They looked more like the early season bunch last week against Utah, as quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was getting pressured at the outset on just about every play. They’ll have to clean that up this week. USC’s defense is just starting to get healthy up front, and after the success that Utah had blitzing last week, USC is bound to throw a few blitzes towards UCLA this week as well.
UCLA will have to do their job blocking up front, for the sake of both the run game and the passing game. DTR is not a good quarterback when pressured; he tends to become careless with the football. Improved line play will be important for the run game as well. UCLA is going to need a sustained effort on the ground to win this one, and while Joshua Kelley is going to give you his best each and every week, his success ultimately depends on those guys in the trenches.
3. Dorian Thompson-Robinson vs USC Secondary
If there’s a weak link in the SC defense, this is it, and DTR is going to have to bring his A-game on the road. He reverted to his early-season woes last week and made too many boneheaded, unforced errors. The receivers will need to do a better job winning one-on-one than they did last week, but DTR needs to be smart and accurate with the football if UCLA wants to come out of the coliseum with a win. He’s not exactly a young player anymore, and he needs to show that he has what it takes to play well in a big-time game.
I said it earlier and I’ll say it again: I don’t think UCLA is going to win this game. I’ve watched my fair share of USC football this year. This is a team that’s been hit hard by injuries, none bigger than their starting quarterback during the first game of the season, and they’ve done nothing but fight hard in just about every game they’ve been in. They’re tough and a good football team. UCLA, on the other hand, hasn’t been a good team this year, and they tend to need things to go exactly their way in order to play well. When they aren’t playing in a very specific way (run the ball well, protect the quarterback, get a lead early), they simply haven’t shown the ability to make adjustments, battle through adversity, or beat teams that are more talented than they are.
I expect USC to win this game, and if they do, it will be fitting: Right now, they’re simply the better football team.