USC Defense Must Contain Bruins To Prevail in Crosstown Showdown

Beat UCLA in Pasadena on Saturday, and the Trojans have a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game. Here is how.

Will Simonds

At this point, things are pretty simple for USC.

Beat UCLA in Pasadena on Saturday, and the Trojans have a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game. If they pass that primary task, then wins at home against Notre Dame and likely against the winner of Oregon and Utah in Las Vegas the following week would almost guarantee them a spot in the College Football Playoff.

While those win-and-you’re-in scenarios are quite straightforward, I think we all know that it won’t play out so smoothly. After all, no conference cannibalizes itself quite like the Pac-12 — look no further than what happened last weekend, when UCLA and Oregon both lost as double-digit favorites.

And with that, let’s start with how the Bruins’ loss last week to Arizona can help USC’s chances at the Rose Bowl. After all, the Wildcats also tested the Trojans a few weeks ago.

What sticks out foremost is the way Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura absolutely balled out against the Bruins’ defense. Though he was seemingly under pressure all night, de Laura had consistent success scrambling and finding receivers deep. He was still sacked three times, but those were offset by his 11.3 yards per passing attempt.

Like de Laura, USC quarterback Caleb Williams has the unique ability to make things happen both inside and outside the pocket. If you’ve watched any USC games this season, you’re probably already very accustomed to Williams’ dexterity to avoid pressure and either scramble for yards or make a tough throw on the move.

Considering the idea that UCLA was probably looking ahead to Williams when it let de Laura outplay them, that could be very good news for Lincoln Riley and the USC offense. The Trojans’ offensive line will still need to play well against a talented Bruins’ pass rush that includes Laiatu Latu and his eight sacks this season, which ranks 11th in the country. But even when Latu gets pressure, de Laura’s success when extending plays should translate to the Heisman candidate Williams.

Additionally, with both Jordan Addison and Mario Williams still likely not at 100% for the Trojans at receiver, Tahj Washington could have another opportunity for a big game out of the slot. Comparatively, Arizona’s Jacob Cowing, who shares the same 5-foot-11, 175-pound build out of the slot as Washington, had nine catches for 118 yards against a suspect UCLA secondary last week.

Staying on this side of the ball, USC’s backfield will be an important aspect to observe Saturday. Travis Dye is a big loss both on and off the field, but the Trojans have proven depth at running back. Austin Jones already has a pair of games with at least 100 total yards this season, including in relief of Dye last Friday against Colorado. Raleek Brown has also been impressive in his freshman season; he should see a significant role on passing downs.

While the Trojans’ elite offense should feast against a mediocre UCLA defense, the same should be true going the other direction. USC’s defense has struggled all year when it hasn’t been able to force turnovers, especially against the run. That’s bad news when you consider that the Bruins — checks notes — lead the FBS with 6.2 yards per carry as a team. Very bad news.

The tandem of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet has been tough for any defense to figure out, as UCLA has run for over 180 yards in nine of 10 games this season. The Trojans have to figure out a way to make DTR air it out, as his propensity to throw interceptions plays into the strengths of Alex Grinch’s defensive scheme.

Speaking of the Trojans’ defensive strengths, USC needs another big performance out of its own preeminent pass rusher: Tuli Tuipulotu. After 2.5 more sacks against Colorado, plus a forced safety, he leads the nation in sacks with 11.5 on the year. Between the Bruins’ solid offensive line and DTR’s exceptional mobility, it won’t be easy for Tuipulotu to add to that total, but the Trojans will need him to.

In searching for defensive answers for USC, let’s go back to Arizona, which held UCLA to a season-low 28 points. The Wildcats didn’t really stop the run either, as Charbonnet rushed 24 times for 181 yards and three touchdowns. Instead, DTR’s inefficiency in the passing — and running — game was the Bruins’ downfall, even against a brutal Arizona pass defense. Specifically, the Wildcats’ zone defense prevented DTR from creating explosive plays with his arm or legs, holding him to 6.3 yards per attempt and 23 rushing yards.

In other words, the Trojans’ defensive blueprint should be to make Charbonnet beat them on his own. If USC can keep everything in front of them, it should be able to force DTR into enough mistakes in order for the offense to win a shootout. UCLA put up 66 points on the Trojans’ at the Coliseum last year because of numerous big plays — stopping those will be the key.

Even if USC’s defense plays well, the Bruins’ will inevitably still score plenty of points. But at the same time, the Trojans shouldn’t have trouble scoring four or five touchdowns themselves at a minimum. Both offenses are simply that good; it’s a matter of which defense does a better job of keeping up.

In the end, I still think this game will come down to who has the ball last. I haven’t seen enough from either defense to expect them to make a big stop at the end of a game, so this edition of the Crosstown Showdown appears to be a coin flip to me. Given that, I’ll side with who I believe to be the better quarterback: Caleb Williams, whose beyond-his-years decision-making will put the Trojans over the edge, keeping their CFP hopes alive for another week.