The fact that the best yearly Pac-12 football rivalry is happening between the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins on Saturday is definitely a blessing in disguise. Yes, the Trojans are undefeated — and yes, the Bruins have lost twice. But that doesn’t matter when one team is likely to play in the conference championship and the other is just playing for the Victory Bell.
Out of the five rivalry games in the conference, two were great games played until the last whistle, one was canceled due to COVID-19, and two are being played this weekend. But the Arizona and Arizona State rivalry game on Friday won’t be as thrilling as Saturday’s matchup (spoiler, it was a massive blowout).
The Trojans lead the head-to-head with 48 wins, 32 losses, and seven ties with two wins vacated due to NCAA penalties. USC has won four of the last five matchups, including last year’s dismantling at the LA Memorial Coliseum that saw the Trojans’ then-freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis break the school’s — and the rivalry’s — record with 515 passing yards, and the offense creating a school-record having four receivers with over 100 yards receiving.
USC head coach Clay Helton will be coaching in his 11th game against UCLA — but only seven years as a head coach — while UCLA head coach Chip Kelly will be coaching in his third rivalry game. Helton is 4-2 as a head coach against UCLA and 1-1 against Kelly.
The Trojans have had three close games, and their last one was over before the end of the first quarter. The Bruins have had three solid wins and two close losses.
It’s a battle on both sides of the ball. The Bruins and Trojans are ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, in total yards in the Pac-12 — 430.6 and 424.5 yards per game. The Trojans are ranked No. 1 in passing yards with 313 per game with the Bruins ranked No. 9, while the Bruins are ranked No. 2 in rushing yards with 227.6 per game with the Trojans ranked last.
Defensively, the Trojans and the Bruins are ranked No. 3 and No. 6, respectively, in yards allowed — 356.5 and 373 yards per game. The Trojans and Bruins are also ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in points allowed per game with 21.8 and 24.8 points.
For either side, the defense will win the game
The Trojans, debatably, have a better defense overall than the Bruins — though it is pretty even. Both teams have some talent everywhere on the field, from the defensive line to the linebackers to the defensive backs. Both teams have league-leaders with Bruins defensive back Stephan Blaylock ranked No. 4 in total tackles with 34 — and Trojans safety Talanoa Hufanga ranked No. 5 with 33.
Bruins linebacker Caleb Johnson and Bruins defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa rank No. 2 and No. 3 in sacks with four and a half and four sacks each — and Trojans defensive lineman Nick Figueroa ranks No. 6 with three and a half sacks. Hufanga also leads the conference with three interceptions while four UCLA defensive players and three other USC players each have one interception on the season.
Helton described the Bruins’ defense as different and more aggressive than last year’s squad with their ability to create negative yardage plays as one thing that stands out.
USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said the Bruins’ two “dynamic” running backs create issues for defenses and can create a problem for the Trojans.
“They are playing really good ball and they are doing a really good job up front,” he said. “Their guys up front are not getting enough credit for what they’re doing — they are running off the football, creating a lot of bubbles off the line of scrimmage, and giving those backs a lot of room to run with, so it’s a very explosive offense that can rack up points really quickly.”
Stopping the run should be a big priority.
USC’s offense is missing balance while UCLA is showing their ability
The statistics that stand out a lot for the Trojans is that of Slovis having thrown for 1,257 yards in four games while completing 72.1 percent of his passes, but the three running backs for the Trojans have ran the ball less than 40 times each and have below 150 yards rushing apiece. The team is averaging 111.5 rushing yards a game, and that is slightly concerning in comparison to UCLA’s 227.6 rushing yards per game.
Slovis has two receivers with over 300 catching yards — junior Amon-Ra St. Brown and sophomore Drake London, one with over 250 — senior Tyler Vaughns, and one with 150 — freshman Bru McCoy. His receiving corps is solid, and they are saving him a lot of the time.
Meanwhile, UCLA junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson makes a strong case for the Bruins with just under 700 passing yards on 57.8 percent completion with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has over 200 yards rushing to add to his resume.
The Bruins have three strong runners in Thompson-Robinson, senior running back Demetric Felton — who has rushed for 578 yards on 111 carries, and senior Brittain Brown — who has added 290 yards on 46 carries. They combine that running game with a receiving game that has three players seeing triple-digit receiving yards — one of those players being Felton with 112 yards. Bruins sophomore tight end Greg Dulcich leads the way for his team with 312 yards on 16 catches and sophomore receiver Kyle Philips is a close second with 246 yards on 23 catches for the season.
Helton said on Tuesday that Thompson-Robinson is hard to play but fun to watch, and he described the running backs as a nice one-two punch in the backfield.
He has also said that the need to rush 170 yards a game is important for a championship-caliber team, but they are a little far from that mark.
“I think because at some point in time, if you go back to those first two games, there may be a game where your quarterback is just slightly off — like the Arizona game — and you’re going to need that rushing attack to be able to take some pressure off of him,” he said. “The 175 yards that happened in that game [against Arizona State] was important. It is a priority for us — it is something that we work towards. I will say this — if you line up in Cover 1 or Cover 3 every snap, you’re probably going to get a lot of throws from us. That happened a lot, especially in the first half and more in the second half than I thought [on Sunday]. … We bank on our playmakers making those plays, and they did. … It’s something that we always want to improve on, and I think it’s a mark of a good offense to be able to run the ball when needed.”
The Trojans followed that 175-yard game with a 173-yard game at Arizona, but they had 93 yards at Utah and — without counting the 22 negative yards — had 27 yards against Washington State last week.
But the game last week was different in many ways, including the fact that they had a five-touchdown lead in the first quarter before taking it easy the rest of the way and playing a lot of backups.
This week’s game is different. It could easily be a win-or-go-home game for the Trojans if No. 21 Colorado can pull out a win against Utah and remain undefeated.
Helton said Tuesday that they have to play all 60 minutes and they can’t let off the gas pedal like last week.
“I think we did that defensively the entire night [on Sunday], especially with our energy, and we have to be able to do that consistently offensively,” he said. “This team has taken coaching — they’re very coachable — and we’ve addressed things, and they fixed them, and they’ve improved each and every week. … They’re headed for the right direction, and this is a coachable moment, and I know Graham and staff will do a tremendous job of getting the things that need to be fixed, fixed.”
He thinks that UCLA could easily be undefeated if turnovers didn’t hurt them at the beginning of the season against Colorado and Oregon.
The Trojans have to force mistakes and take advantage of the matchups.
USC has a big chance of playing in the Pac-12 championship next week, and a spot is likely secured with a win at the Rose Bowl.