- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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UCLA and USC are uncomfortably intertwined more than just about any other college football rivalry. They share a city, not just a state. Many of the players know each other, having played together or against each other during their high school careers in Southern California. Many of them cross paths on a regular basis around town.
More often than not, they exchange a fist bump and leave the posturing stares to overzealous fans. And they do chat. So yes, it's likely that during the four days since USC fired Lane Kiffin, the topic has come up and there's been a degree of Bruins curiosity.
While UCLA second-year coach Jim Mora has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Kiffin's plight, he also denies that his players give a flip about the goings-on across town.
"We don't worry about that stuff," Mora said. "We don't talk about it. We don't think about it. It's not in our orbit. That's another team. We worry about our team. Our players worry about our team. They couldn't care less what's going on over there. It doesn't matter to us. It's not going to affect us. We don't play them until late November. It doesn't matter to us. It's a nonfactor."
Mora has a point, too. Any focus on USC distracts from the present purpose: His team pays a visit to Utah on Thursday as the No. 12 Bruins open their Pac-12 schedule with a South Division showdown.
It's an interesting matchup with more than a few notable connections.
Start with UCLA’s win in last year’s meeting, with the Bruins bouncing back from a blowout loss to woeful California the week before. At the time, Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley, a redshirt freshman, was beginning to establish himself as a budding star. In the opposite huddle, true freshman quarterback Travis Wilson was making his first career start. Wilson would throw for more yards than Hundley -- 220 versus 183 -- but was far less efficient. And Hundley just killed the Utes defense with his running, accounting for 68 yards on 15 carries.
Hundley's offensive coordinator is Noel Mazzone, who was hired by Mora because of the work he did with Brock Osweiler running an up-tempo, pass-happy spread offense at Arizona State.
This offseason, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham decided he wanted to adopt an up-tempo, pass-happy spread offense. So he hired Mazzone's former boss at Arizona State, Dennis Erickson, who is one of the fathers of the up-tempo, pass-happy spread offense.
Erickson has done wonders with the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Wilson, whom Mora this week compared to the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Osweiler, who is now with the Denver Broncos.
UCLA's offense, very good last year, is putting up ridiculous numbers this season with Hundley in his second year as a starter. It ranks second in the nation in total offense (614 yards per game) and third in scoring (52.7 points per game). Balance? The Bruins are 13th in the nation in rushing (284.3 YPG) and 12th in passing (330 YPG). Efficiency? UCLA leads the nation with an eye-popping 68 percent conversion rate on third down.
Said Whittingham: "They are doing everything right on offense."
Yet perhaps no offense in the nation is as improved as Utah's. Last year, the Utes averaged 324 yards and 26.7 points per game. This year, they are averaging 505 yards and 42 points per game. Utah passed for a conference-worst 190.7 yards per game in 2012. This year it's 286 yards per game. The Utes had 16 touchdown passes all of last season. They have nine through four games this fall.
"Dennis has his handprints all over that," Mora said.
Obviously, the linchpin has been Wilson, whom Whittingham admits has thus far exceeded expectations. Wilson is simply a different player than he was as a true freshman trying to negotiate a Pac-12 schedule.
"I think there are quite a few differences," Whittingham said. "No. 1, his confidence level, his poise level, his command of the offense. He's playing very confidently right now. He's really progressed and matured a lot faster than any of us thought he would. His numbers and Hundley's numbers are almost the exact same."
That is -- perhaps surprisingly -- true. Wilson is third in the Pac-12 and 15th in the nation in passing efficiency, while Hundley is fourth and 16th. Hundley ranks 11th in ESPN's Total QBR, while Wilson is 16th. Hundley is averaging 282.7 yards passing per game with eight TDs and three interceptions, while Wilson is averaging 279.5 YPG with nine TDs and three picks.
Wilson has rushed for 257 yards, Hundley for 157.
"That will be an intriguing matchup, to see how the quarterbacks match up against each other," said Whittingham, making an accurate statement that no one would have said in August.
When you add up all these sparkling numbers, you figure this game won't end up 21-14, with the teams combining for less than 700 yards of offense.
Of course, the defenses will have their say, too. The Bruins have a clear advantage there, yielding 18 points per game compared to 24.2 for the Utes, but it's difficult to truly measure things based on the nonconference schedule.
As always, turnovers will be a key, something that typically starts with quarterback play. But also pay attention to third down. As previously noted, the Bruins are great at converting them on offense, but they also are pretty salty thwarting them on defense (26.7 percent). The Utes convert just 35 percent of their third downs and are at 36.6 percent on third-down defense.
For UCLA, this is the first step toward winning the South Division. Utah, on the other hand, is trying to gain traction in Year 3 in the conference. The previous two years, the Utes started Pac-12 play at a dismal 0-4. Beating the Bruins not only would prevent them from heading toward that early-oh-fer direction again, it would make a strong statement.
As in: The Utes now have a Pac-12 QB, so now they are ready to advance in the conference pecking order.