A rivalry restored
November, 12, 2012
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- They're meeting somewhere in the middle, squaring up for a USC-UCLA rivalry that's given the word back its meaning.
USC has been just disappointing enough without quite collapsing.
UCLA has been just ascendant enough without quite proving it has ended the football monopoly in Los Angeles.
And so, this Saturday's game in Pasadena carries all the significance, all the potential for smack talk, all the old-fashioned, let's-take-it-out-back fun that it should. The stakes are pretty simple: Whoever wins Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl will play in the Pac-12 title game two weeks later with the hope of being back in the old building on New Year's Day.
What's not to like about that, especially as boring as these games have been lately? UCLA has beaten USC once in the past 14 years, that 2006 shocker that knocked Pete Carroll's team out of the BCS title game. Since then, the Trojans have outscored the Bruins 158-35 head-to-head. The closest UCLA loss has been by two touchdowns.
We live in an era of sanitized speech in sports. These days, the thing that passes for trash talking between these two teams is manufactured. Literally. One of the mini-dramas of last week involved UCLA cornerback Randall Goforth's fake Twitter account and coach Jim Mora's bizarre overreaction to it.
Things might get a little more chippy in the coming days -- and the hostility figures to amp up on game day -- but USC sounded oddly respectful of its cross-town rival following the Trojans' order-restoring 38-17 win over Arizona State Saturday at the Coliseum.
"They're a great team, I've been watching them all season," Trojans linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "They've matured and grown way better than the last couple years we've been playing them."
UCLA (8-2) is ranked higher, but USC (7-3) was installed as an early four-point favorite playing on the road, sort of. The guys in Las Vegas have followed this series.
"In years past, we've kind of gotten after UCLA, but they're a different team this year and, obviously, we're not going to take them lightly," defensive end Wes Horton said.
The take-lightly game for USC might have been this past one, with Arizona State sandwiched around a national-interest game against Oregon and the two upcoming rivalry games. Even though USC wraps up the Pac-12 South on Saturday, it might be even more satisfying to knock Notre Dame out of consideration for the national championship the following week.
Kiffin said he never mentioned either of those looming rivals in meetings and practice last week.
"Obviously, they know about it," Kiffin said.
This north-south thing hasn't quite worked out so far as the Pac-12 planned it. A year ago, with USC banned from postseason play, a UCLA team coming off a 50-0 loss at USC qualified for the conference championship and made for an awful inaugural title game at Oregon. The Bruins fired coach Rick Neuheisel before they even got to their bowl game.
It was supposed to be different this season, with USC on the rise and Oregon breaking in a new quarterback. But the Trojans lost two games they probably shouldn't have and one they probably should have. What's amazing is that they still can salvage this disappointing season if they can win four more games, a tough road that starts this weekend.
"A lot has gone on this year, both on the field and off the field," quarterback Matt Barkley said. "I think our guys have done a great job of, at this moment, really focusing on what matters, to win these games and to decide our future, which we can do.
"A lot of teams have to hope other teams lose or other teams win."
Saturday is just the first step in restoring the rivalry. UCLA is young, having used 12 true freshmen and 13 redshirt freshmen. Barkley will be gone in 2013 while UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley will just be finishing up his sophomore season. Things could be competitive around here for a while.
The eyes of the rest of the conference will be on Los Angeles on Saturday and, whether you're a fan of either team, that's the way you like it.