Friday, November 16, 2012
By Pedro Moura
The USC Trojans (No. 18 BCS, No. 21 AP) and UCLA Bruins (No. 17 BCS, No. 17 AP) haven't matched up in a game that meant this much in a long time.
The winner of Saturday's 12 p.m. PT game at the Rose Bowl will secure the Pac-12 South title and earn a trip to the conference championship to compete for a bid to another game at the Rose Bowl.
Here are 10 things to watch in the winner-take-all matchup:
1. Mora vs. Kiffin. Long-term, the most important takeaway from this game will be who takes the upper hand between the two coaches who seem destined for a nice rivalry. Jim Mora and Lane Kiffin have the perfect mix of similarities and differences to make things interesting -- coaching bloodlines, NFL failures and recruiting successes, plus their opposite personalities. Mora is engaging and exciting as a speaker; Kiffin is, at his best, mildly entertaining. But who's a better coach? Perhaps we'll find out on Saturday.
2. More Marqise Lee. Lee hasn't lost any of his luster over the past couple of weeks, as he continues to be probably the second-hottest player in the country, behind only Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. The whole defense thing from last week didn't work out, and Lee said he won't be playing there this week, but even so, he should be able to exploit a weak UCLA secondary. Lee is just 14 catches, 86 yards and four touchdowns away from breaking the Pac-12 single-season marks in all three categories.
3. Strength vs. weakness. If this isn't a recipe for abject disaster, what is? UCLA's biggest weakness is its secondary, and specifically, at corner. USC's biggest strength is its receivers, the top pass-catching duo in the nation. If the Bruins single-cover Lee with Sheldon Price or Aaron Hester at any point, they'll essentially be inviting the Trojans to score a touchdown. If they double- or triple-cover him, they'll be inviting Kiffin to re-explore throwing the ball to Robert Woods, which has never worked out too poorly for USC.
4. Hundley and Franklin. USC has Lee and Matt Barkley. UCLA has Brett Hundley and Johnathan Franklin, and the Bruins' duo isn't far off in terms of overall excitement and ability to explode for dynamic plays. It'll be particularly interesting to see how the Trojans try to stop Franklin, who has reinvented himself this season as an outside runner after running mostly between the tackles in the old Bruins scheme. As for Hundley, he's a dual-threat quarterback who has been more effective as a passer than a runner, and he makes his living passing short to backs and tight ends. In fact, only one of the Bruins' top four receivers is an actual wide receiver, and only four of Hundley's 24 touchdown passes have gone to an actual receiver, not counting newly healthy running back/receiver Damien Thigpen.
5. The offensive lines. No, they won't be battling directly against one another, but the Trojans' and Bruins' lines will collectively determine a lot of what happens at the Rose Bowl. UCLA's offensive line is particularly young and hasn't kept Hundley off the ground, but the Trojans' linemen probably would've been on the hook for more sacks if Kiffin didn't call so many three-step drops because of them. Who will step up to the occasion? If there's an indicator, maybe it's that USC starts a fifth-year senior at center in Khaled Holmes, and UCLA starts a redshirt freshman, Jake Brendel.
6. Barkley's final two. In his fourth- and third-to-last games of the 2011 season, against Colorado and Washington, Barkley completed only 64 percent of his passes and threw for 492 total yards. In his final two games, against Oregon and UCLA, he completed 80 percent of his throws for 746 yards. There is a precedent for him to turn up his play at the end of the year, and he'll need to do that to win after a three-interception performance a week ago. It's still not out of the question that Barkley could play his way back into the Heisman top 10 with three straight dominating performances to end the regular season.
7. Barr and Kendricks. UCLA's top two linebackers are very different players, but they're the biggest threats the Trojans' offense will face on Saturday. Anthony Barr, a former running back, is a 6-foot-4, 235-pound pass-rushing fiend, whom Kiffin complimented this week. Eric Kendricks is a less dynamic athlete who has been a tackling machine -- no Bruin is within 40 tackles of his total of 102 this season.
8. USC's running. Kiffin's status updates on injured running back Silas Redd have been the same for almost a week now. Every time he's asked if Redd will be available to play against the Bruins, Kiffin says exactly the same thing: "I hope so." If Redd doesn't play, the Trojans would be significantly short-handed in the backfield, since Curtis McNeal was beat up after 31 carries last week and D.J. Morgan is still operating at less than full strength. USC needs Redd on Saturday.
9. Battle of the bands. The story has made the rounds by now -- UCLA fans started a grassroots campaign to stop the USC drum major from stabbing the Bruins' logo at midfield with his sword before Saturday's game. UCLA administration responded and made a formal request for the Trojans not to perform the sword-stabbing, and USC complied, saying it wanted to emphasize sportsmanship. But USC fans aren't satisfied and have called for the band to respond. Will it? Who knows?
10. A prediction: UCLA might well be better-coached than USC, but the Trojans have the superior talent -- not by an incredible margin, but by enough to make a difference. The Bruins don't have anyone to stop Lee, try as they might, and Redd and Woods should get going at the Rose Bowl, too. That said, expect Hundley to show up on another national stage and add to his thoroughly impressive freshman campaign, and Franklin to run for 125-plus yards. In a near shootout with a red zone turnover or two from each team, USC should win, 42-31.