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December 5, 2008Game 12: The 78th Battle of L.A.
Two years ago, the Bruins knocked the Trojans into the Rose Bowl with a huge upset in Pasadena. This time around, could UCLA knock USC out of the Rose Bowl with another stunner?
The consensus No. 5 USC Trojans (10-1, 7-1 in the Pac-10) close out the 2008 regular season this Saturday, December 6, against the crosstown-rival UCLA Bruins (4-7, 3-5) at 1:30 p.m. (PST) in Pasadena's Rose Bowl and in front of a national ABC television audience. This is the 78th meeting in the rivalry, with USC holding a 42-28-7 edge. The Trojans have won eight of the past nine meetings, including a 24-7 victory in at the Coliseum a season ago. However, in the most recent Rose Bowl meeting, the Bruins pulled off one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the rivalry, defeating then-No. 2 USC, 13-9, and knocking the Trojans out of the BCS championship game.
Last weekend, USC demolished traditional rival Notre Dame, 38-3, at the Coliseum. Troy's defense limited the Irish to just 91 total yards, and ND did not earn its initial first down in the game until the final play of the third quarter. It was the Trojans' seventh consecutive victory over the Irish. Meanwhile, the Bruins were dropped, 34-9, at Arizona State in a rare Friday night game. UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft threw three interceptions and fumbled - all four turnovers resulting in Sun Devil defensive touchdowns. ASU's four defensive scores tied a national single-game record.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll (86-15, 57-10 in the Pac-10) is in his eighth season, having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, UCLA headman Rick Neuheisel (70-37 in nine seasons as a head coach overall) is wrapping up his first season at his alma mater. According to many pundits, Neuheisel put together a dream coaching staff upon arrival, keeping celebrated defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker on staff while adding renowned former BYU and USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow. However, the Bruins lost a number of key playmakers to graduation after 2007, and their youth and a bevy of injuries - especially on offense - have helped make 2008 a season to forget.
Chow must be having flashbacks to his first season at USC (2001), when the Trojans struggled to muster any kind of rushing attack at all, thanks to injury and inexperience. (Do you remember that Sunny Byrd and Chris Howard were USC's 1-2 tailback punch in the Trojans' 27-0 win against UCLA that season?) Then, however, Chow was able to rely upon a junior quarterback one year away from winning the Heisman Trophy - Carson Palmer - to help USC muster enough offense to earn a bowl bid and finish 6-6. He has no such luxury this season, even though his quarterback - Craft - is also a junior. The Bruins rank eighth in the conference in total offense (294.7 yards per game) and scoring offense (18.6 points) - and dead last in the Pac-10 with just 86 rushing yards per contest. All of those numbers rank UCLA below No. 100 nationally. Craft has helped UCLA throw for more than 208 yards per game, middle of the road in the conference - but his 19 interceptions have been extremely costly. Not only have six of the 19 been returned for touchdowns, but Craft has also thrown 13 picks (and no TDs) in the Bruins' past four games. On top of all that, Bruin quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times in 2008. Still, even with all those problems, it is unlikely that freshman back-up Chris Forcier will see quality time Saturday unless Craft is injured.
Certainly, Craft's development in Chow's system has been questionable at best, but other facets of the offense haven't exactly helped him take positive steps. One slightly positive area for UCLA has been its receiving corps. Junior Terrence Austin has become a reliable possession receiver, notching 49 grabs (but just 8.7 yards per), while speedy freshman Taylor Embree and sizeable junior Dominique Johnson have combined for 70 catches between them. Embree is more of a downfield target, while Johnson uses his size well. Another big target is 6'5" freshman Nelson Rosario, who has 11 catches. Senior Marcus Everett also sees time outside. Junior tight end Ryan Moya is third on the team with 38 grabs and leads UCLA with three TD catches. Freshman TE Cory Harkey is used more in running situations.
Running situations have befuddled the Bruins all season long. UCLA's 86 yards-per-game average falls to just 48.6 if you remove its performances against Arizona, Fresno State, Washington and Washington State. The 606 rushing yards gained in those four outings accounts for nearly two-thirds of the Bruins' rushing total in 2008. At least it appears UCLA has settled on a two-back rotation, with senior Kahlil Bell and freshman Derrick Coleman sharing duties at tailback. Bell is averaging less than three yards per carry on 126 attempts, but does lead UCLA with seven TDs. Coleman is averaging a more impressive 5.5 yards in reserve duty. Junior fullback Chane Moline, has 29 totes on the season, most of those during the two games he started at tailback early in the year due to injuries.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the UCLA offense, however, is along its front five. You've heard of a "patchwork" offensive line? Well, the Bruins are more like a giant quilt. Ten players have started a game for UCLA's offensive line in 2008, because of a mix of inexperience, poor performance and injury. Only junior Nick Ekbatani has started all 11 games in 2008, but even he has had to swap from right tackle, where he started the first six, to right guard, where he's started the past five. For one three game stretch in the middle of the season, UCLA started the same five players in the same five positions. Otherwise, it's been a different group every week. This weekend, the Bruins are expected to go with the same five that started a week ago - Ekbatani, freshman Jeff Baca at left tackle (where he's started seven games), junior Micah Kia at left guard (he's also made starts this season at both tackle spots), senior Micah Reed at center (sophomore Jake Dean has shared time with him there), and freshman Mike Harris at right tackle.
Obviously, Walker's group could sue the offense for non-support in 2008. A struggling offense that can't eat up any clock and continually turns the ball over (28 times so far in 2008) doesn't help any team's defense, especially one trying to replace a group of key performers in every position group. However, Walker has wrung another statistically solid season out of this maturing unit. UCLA has the nation's No. 2 pass defense, allowing just 158 yards per game through the air. The Bruins have held three opponents to less than 100 yards passing. UCLA's inexperience and lack of size in the front seven has caused the Bruins' sack total to drop to 21 this year, while teams rush for more than 165 yards per game, placing UCLA eighth in the conference. Still, the Bruins are fourth in the Pac-10 (and in the national top 35) in total defense.
Up front, the Bruins are led by sophomore defensive tackle Brian Price, a true star in the making. Price counts 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks among his 33 stops. Playing next to stalwart senior Brigham Harwell hasn't hurt. Harwell, a senior, has 52 stops from his tackle position. Junior Korey Bosworth has been a solid pass rushing force from his right end spot, leading UCLA with 7.5 sacks among his 48 tackles. The loss of senior Tom Blake at midseason left sophomore Reginald Stokes and freshman Datone Jones to learn on the job. Neither has registered a sack in 2008.
At linebacker, an early injury to senior Kyle Bosworth forced the unit's leader, junior Reggie Carter, to swap from the middle to the weakside spot. While Carter leads UCLA with 76 tackles, the change has led to redshirt freshman Steve Sloan learning on the job in the middle. Sloan has struggled, with just 23 stops, but his learning curve is sharpening. From time to time, Carter will shift back to the middle, allowing small but talented freshman Sean Westgate to play on the weakside. On the strong side, senior John Hale and freshman Akeem Ayers have shared the position all season, with Hale starting eight of the 11 games. The more physically gifted Ayers has 34 tackles, while Hale, the cagey veteran, has 33.
A huge key for the Bruins' excellent pass defense has been the play of cornerbacks Michael Norris, a senior, and Alterraun Verner, a junior. Verner leads the nation with 16 pass breakups and is second on the team with 67 tackles. Like Norris, Verner has two interceptions. Senior Bret Lockett has 59 stops from his strong safety position, while true freshman Rahim Moore has 52 and leads UCLA with three picks at free safety. Freshman Courtney Viney and junior Aaron Ware see time in nickel formations, while freshman Glenn Love also spends some time at strong safety.
UCLA Special Teams
As usual, the Bruins boast excellent kicking teams. Sophomore placekicker Kai Forbath is 19-of-22 on field goals, including 5-of-6 outside of 40 yards. Junior Jimmy Rotstein is a decent kickoff specialist handles kickoffs, and though he only has one touchback in 38 kicks. Senior punter Aaron Perez is one of the best in the nation, averaging 44.5 yards on an astounding 70 punts. More than one-third of his punts have gone for more than 50 yards. Austin is dangerous in his dual role as the Bruins' returner, averaging more than 24 yards on kickoffs (a long of 82) and 10 yards on punts (a long of 41).
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense performed solidly - if without perfection - against Notre Dame, using a balanced attack that picked at just enough of the scabs on the Irish defense to total 38 points. Without ill-timed penalties and a goal-to-go turnover, the Trojans could have put up as many as 49 points against the Irish. USC utilized Joe McKnight's speed in the running game and took advantage of an Irish back seven that is susceptible to speed in underneath routes when they moved the ball effectively. Still, there were the usual hiccups in play calling and execution - and yet another sack from an empty set - that kept the Trojans from a true breakout performance.
Against a Bruin defense that statistically resembles the Irish (struggling against the run, but much tougher against the pass), it would again appear the Trojans would do well to establish a power rushing attack and then take advantage of openings downfield created by play-action opportunity. However, in 2006, when UCLA had its way against the Trojan offense, the Bruins flooded the box in an effort to take the run away from USC, betting on their pass rush against John David Booty and the Trojan receivers. Can they do that again, even though they are without defensive ends the caliber of Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, who made Booty's life hell that day?
Expect UCLA to try some version of this defensive attack again. Walker is likely to gamble that USC will be somewhat conservative early on, realizing that Carroll and Co. believe the Trojan defense is likely to overpower UCLA's offense and force turnovers. However, outside of Price and Harwell in the middle, the Bruins' front seven has really struggled against solid rushing teams. If the Bruins overcommit their personnel against USC's rushing attack, USC should be able to utilize Mark Sanchez's mobility in the passing game rather quickly. It is unlikely that Sanchez will be sitting in the pocket all day like Booty did two years ago, and USC would rather find ways to get their most talented pass catchers in space against the UCLA linebackers and safeties rather than matching up against the Bruins' solid corners.
USC Defensive Gameplan
What more can be said about the Trojan defense in 2008? Statistically, this is the best defense college football has seen in at least a decade - and if you have had the chance to watch them on a week-in, week-out basis, you realize that they may actually be even better than those numbers. The USC defense made the Notre Dame offense look like it didn't have a second page in its playbook, forcing one short throw after another and completely deleting the Irish running game until ND decided to run a series of draw plays down 31-0. No first downs for three quarters? 91 total yards? A "we quit" field goal in the fourth quarter? Amazingly, none of that sounds out of the ordinary for the 2008 USC defense.
And yet, this weekend, could the USC defense put up its best overall performance of 2008 against a Bruin attack that simply has not run the ball well at all and has an interception machine at quarterback? Actually, yes, it could. Because of Craft's struggles, Chow has reined in the Bruin offense to such an extent that seemingly 90 percent of UCLA's passing attack takes place less than 15 yards downfield. The Bruins simply don't want to take risks in the deep middle of the field with Craft staring down receivers and struggling to read coverages. Sure, they'll throw the deep fade or a fly pattern now and then, but it's very rare. A week ago against the Bruins, Arizona State's safeties and linebackers jumped one short passing route after another, and eventually had three pick-sixes.
Without a rushing attack - don't be surprised to see Craft on some designed runs after the success UCLA had running Patrick Cowan a couple years ago - the Bruins will be hard pressed to keep the Trojans from teeing off on Craft. If USC's front four gets the kind of pressure it did against Notre Dame last week - and with the problems that have beset UCLA's offensive line, you have to expect it will - and allows the Trojans to drop seven into coverage, Craft's interception problems are unlikely to abate. Even if USC gets a great push with the front four, you can still expect Carroll to confuse Craft by mixing blitzes and coverages. Unless Craft has a 180-degree turn from the previous 11 games, it's going to be a long day for the UCLA offense.
It will be great to return to the tradition of both teams wearing home jerseys this Saturday. While some Bruin fans apparently just can't get over the "disrespect" angle being tossed around, Carroll has wanted to bring this tradition back to the rivalry for years, and it's nice to see that at least one person on the other side - Neuheisel - gets it. There are many special things about the USC-UCLA rivalry, but this is one that was lost for more than 25 years to an arcane NCAA rule formulated to face a problem created by the advent of black-and-white televisions. Outdated much? It's nice to have this tradition back - even if it is just for a year. I wholeheartedly hope the Bruins wear their blues in the Coliseum in 2009.
What about the game itself? Well, while UCLA, its fans and the local media seek any possible way to maintain hope that this season's crosstown showdown could be a tight, exciting game ("13-9"; "throw out the records"; "USC doesn't respect UCLA"), their best hopes actually lay with one man - Walker - and his defensive unit. The Bruins need a superhuman performance by their defense against USC that mirrors the 2006 game - and even then, it might not be enough, with USC's defense-for-the-ages facing a brutal UCLA offense.
Still, even with USC a 30-point favorite, one simply cannot discount the possibility of an upset with the memory of the last Pasadena battle so fresh. Walker again made life pretty difficult for Sarkisian's offense during much of last season's 24-7 USC victory in the Coliseum, and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that he could do it Saturday, especially with USC still shooting itself in the foot with penalties so often. Emotion will play a huge role early, and it's likely that UCLA's defense will start strong. However, emotion only goes so far - the Bruins will need to force USC turnovers and could use a big special teams play or two, as well.
Still, Sanchez will be a difference-maker this weekend. His mobility and playmaking ability will allow USC's offense to accomplish much more against the Bruin defense than it did two years ago. Add to that the likelihood that, more than once, USC's defense will put Troy - at least - into scoring position with a turnover, and USC should pull away in the final three quarters.
USC 34, UCLA 6
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.