LOS ANGELES -- The Trojans took the field on Tuesday morning for another full-pads practice as the team began working on crosstown rival UCLA. Always a highly anticipated and emotional affair, this year’s clash features some added stakes, most notably a berth in the Pac-12 championship game.
“This game is a big game no matter what,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said following practice. “It’s USC-UCLA, regardless of what records are. It’s good that it’s a relevant game for two years in a row, and that’s the way it should be.”
Added junior wide receiver Robert Woods, “We’re playing for a win, playing for a Rose [Bowl], playing for L.A., pretty much. It’s one of those games where there’s a lot on the line. We’ve just got to play our game, play well and there’s going to be a big reward at the end.”
Sporting an 8-2 record, the Bruins have shown improvement in just about every phase of the game, looking dramatically different from the squad USC defeated 50-0 in the Coliseum last season. On Tuesday, Kiffin didn’t hold back in his praise of what UCLA coach Jim Mora has done in his first season.
“Obviously, the record speaks for itself, but as you watch them, they’re just doing a really good job of managing situations -- going on the road last week in a tough place to play -- they haven’t had a lot of ups and downs,” Kiffin said. “I think it has to do with the fact that Jim has come in there and done a great job. [He] came in with a lot of discipline, and you can see that they’re coached really well. The offense and defense everybody knows about, but when you look at their special teams too, they’re doing a great job.”
Another high-powered offense
Nowhere has the Bruins’ turnaround been more apparent than in their offense. After finishing 2011 averaging 376.6 yards of offense per game, this year’s squad averages 496.8 yards per game, due in large part to the offense installed by coordinator Noel Mazzone, who ran virtually the same up-tempo, spread look at Arizona State.
“Very similar, running the same offense basically,” Kiffin said. “Noel does a great job, he’s done a great job for years wherever he’s been, of moving the ball and spreading people out. We’re going to have our hands full and we’ll have to play really well.”
This weekend’s contest will mark the fourth consecutive game where the Trojans will have faced a fast-paced, spread offense, and it’s a trend that Kiffin doesn’t see changing any time soon.
“This is the direction of college football, and how it’s changed, especially in our conference,” Kiffin said. “When you start looking at plays per game in our conference and how high they are compared to other conferences, it’s because of these offenses and these tempos in our conference.”
The USC defense will have to prepare for yet another dual-threat quarterback in UCLA's Brett Hundley. He’s thrown for more than 2,700 yards while rushing for almost 300 more yards, and he currently ranks No. 19 in the nation amassing an average of 301.1 yards of offense per game.
“[He] really can make things happen when [plays] break down, whether he’s running it or whether he’s throwing it on third downs,” Kiffin said. “So we’re going to have our hands full. We’re going to have to rush really well.”
Prep, not hype
While there’s definitely added meaning that comes with the USC-UCLA matchup -- evidenced by a dramatically larger media presence at Tuesday's practice -- Kiffin has made a concerted effort to make sure the team keeps its emotions in check.
“We addressed it this morning,” Kiffin said. “Our focus is all on ourselves and making sure that we’re improving. We have a lot of things to work on, and not getting caught up in that. It’s the next game, and it’s never going to be about the hype around it, it’s going to be about which team prepares better, and which team plays better and executes on game day, and doesn’t let the other stuff in.”
Woods moving forward
Despite looking noticeably frustrated on the sidelines on Saturday during his two-catch, minus-3-yard performance against Arizona State, Woods was upbeat on Tuesday.
“As a receiver you never want to have low yards, especially not negative yards,” Woods said. “Just stay positive. It’s just something where you’ve got to let it go. See the film, see my role – blocking downfield getting some key blocks. But I mean, you let it go and just move on to the next week.”