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November 16, 2012

Our extensive UCLA game preview

Game 11: 'Well Honey, I'm Just Tryin' to Make Some Sense in Los Angeles'

A revitalized band of Bruins looks to take the city - and the Pac-12 South - from the Trojans.

The USC Trojans (7-3, 5-3 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 18 in the BCS standings and No. 21 by the Associated Press and the USA Today coaches' poll, close out their 2012 conference schedule against the UCLA Bruins (8-2, 6-2, No. 16 USA Today, No. 17 BCS and AP) at noon (PST) on Saturday, November 17 in Pasadena's Rose Bowl and in front of a national FOX television audience. The Pac-12 South Division title is riding on this, the 82nd meeting in the crosstown rivalry (the Trojans hold a 46-28-7 edge). USC has won five in a row and 12 of the past 13 games against the Bruins, including an historic 50-0 thrashing at the Coliseum last November and a 28-14 victory in the most recent Rose Bowl matchup in 2010.

Last Saturday, the Trojans shook off an early hangover from their preceding losses to Arizona and Oregon to dominate the second half of a 38-17 win over Arizona State at the Coliseum. While sophomore wideout Marqise Lee had another big day on offense, it was the Trojan defense that bounced back from a pair of horrendous performances to hold the previously potent Sun Devils to 250 total yards, while forcing four turnovers. Meanwhile, the Bruins took a 37-7 halftime lead over Washington State before cruising to a 44-36 win in Pullman, Wash. Senior tailback Johnathan Franklin gained 162 yards on the ground, while UCLA's defense and special teams accounted for 16 first-half points.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (32-16 career collegiate head coaching record; 25-10 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, UCLA headman Jim Mora is in first campaign in Westwood after spending much of the prior three decades in the NFL, including head coaching stints with the Atlanta Falcons (2004-06) and Seattle Seahawks (2009). Mora has returned some grit and swagger to the UCLA sideline, and the Bruins' suddenly potent offense has helped Mora become only the third UCLA head coach to win as many as eight games in his first season (a win Saturday would equal Terry Donahue's nine wins in 1976. Unquestionably, this is a much different Bruin team than the Trojans faced during the Rick Neuheisel Era. Are they different enough to make up 50 points in one season?

UCLA Offense
UCLA's new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone knows a thing or two about game planning against the Trojans after his recent stint at Arizona State (where he oversaw a Devils team that put up 43 points on USC in 2011). And he's worked wonders with what had recently been an absolutely anemic Bruin offense. UCLA ranks in the national top 25 in rushing, scoring and total offense (and 31st in passing offense), averaging 496.8 yards and 37.7 points per game. Mazzone has done a nice job mixing up some of his traditional looks with more zone-read principles, allowing the vast physical talents of redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley to shine. Hundley scored on a 72-yard TD run on his very first play under center at Rice, and hasn't looked back. He's completing 69 percent of his passes, with 24 TDs and just nine picks. He's also UCLA's second-leading rusher, with 272 yards and six TDs, despite the fact that the Bruins have given up an alarming 31 sacks, ranking No. 107 nationally.

He's been helped immensely by the talented, tough and driven Franklin, who became UCLA's all-time leading rusher two weeks ago. His 127 yards per game ranks sixth nationally (and third in the Pac-12) He averages 6.4 yards per carry and is also fourth on the team with 24 receptions (two of his 10 total TDs came through the air), unsurprising in a Mazzone attack that has always utilized backs as receivers. Behind Franklin, it looks like junior Damien Thigpen will return Saturday after missing last week with an injury. Thigpen's been a home run hitter for the Bruins, notching big plays on the ground and in the air (249 rushing yards, 17 receptions, four total TDs - three covering 20+ yards). And don't sleep on sophomore Jordon James, who doesn't have Thigpen's big play capability, but has been a steady contributor.

Junior Shaq Evans (39 catches, 14.6 per, 2 TDs) has been UCLA's main outside target, but it's senior tight end Joseph Fauria who has been Hundley's most dangerous scoring target. The Mackey Award semifinalist has a team-leading nine TDs among his 31 catches and is athletic enough to be a downfield threat. Key slot receiver Steven Manfro (27 catches, plus eight rushes for an average of 8.8 yards) has been battling a knee injury and will be a game-time decision for UCLA, while senior starter Jerry Johnson (18 catches) has been joined outside in recent weeks by freshman Jordan Payton (14 catches on the season, seven in the past two games) and converted QB Devin Fuller (all five catches in 2012 in the past two weeks, including 2 TDs).

UCLA's front five has had to shift some players around a bit during the course of the season to battle some injuries, but four Bruins have started all 10 games - a big step for a group that's been troubled by injuries and ineffectiveness in recent seasons. UCLA's run blocking has been outstanding in 2012, with the pass protection (as discussed above) not quite so impressive. The starting five Saturday should consist of a young but growing group: redshirt freshman Torian White at LT; redshirt sophomore Xavier Su'a-Filo at LG; redshirt freshman Jake Brendel at center; senior Jeff Baca at RG; and true freshman Simon Goines at RT. Senior Brett Downey and junior Greg Capella provide depth.

UCLA Defense
Known as a defensive coach, Mora brought in long-time NFL specialist Lou Spanos to help run the UCLA defense. Under their tutelage and a new 3-4 look, UCLA's run defense has improved, ranking fourth in the conference (No. 44 nationally), but the Bruins' pass defense has struggled immensely - even with an attacking style that's led to 37 sacks, tied for fourth in the nation. The Bruins have allowed more than 266 yards per game through the air, ranking 10th in the Pac-12 and 103rd nationally - which has dragged their total defense ranking down to No. 75. Still, UCLA has forced 25 turnovers and come up with a number of key plays to help forge the Bruins' division-leading record.

Up front, senior Datone Jones and junior Cassius Marsh have caused nightmares for opposing offensive lines. The duo has combined for 78 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss (Jones with 13.5) and 10.5 sacks (Marsh with 6.5). More was expected of senior Donovan Carter at end, but it's been junior Owa Odighizuwa who has performed well in rotation (26 tackles, two sacks). JuniorSeali'i Epenesa is the starter at nose tackle.

The loss of senior leader Patrick Larimore hurt the Bruins' linebackers. But a crew of athletic playmakers has picked up for him. Converted defensive end Damien Holmes, a senior, has found a home at left outside linebacker, notching 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks. At the other outside spot, converted running back Anthony Barr, a junior, has been a spectacular attacker, notching 11 sacks among his 54 stops and forcing three fumbles. Junior Jordan Zumwalt has battled through injuries to make 35 tackles from his left inside spot. But the star of the show has been sophomore Eric Kendricks. He has done it all for UCLA, leading the team with an astounding 101 tackles (39 more than the Bruins' No. 2 tackler), while recovering three fumbles and scoring twice.

What's probably most disappointing about UCLA's pass defense troubles is that its secondary was expected to be a strength coming into 2012. Redshirt sophomore (and little brother of USC safety T.J.) Tevin McDonald is the only non-senior starter, and his 62 tackles at free safety rank second on the team. He also has an interception and two fumble recoveries. Senior Andrew Abbott is the strong safety, and he's snagged four interceptions but has just 35 tackles after joining the starting lineup after factoring mostly in the nickel in 2011. Seniors
Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are the cornerbacks, and though they've had their moments (Price has four INTs), they've struggled much more than expected. In the nickel, senior Dalton Hilliard and freshman Randall Goforth will also see plenty of time.

UCLA Special Teams
Freshman Ka'imi Fairbairn has handled the placekicking duties and is 11-of-16 on the season, with four of his misses from longer than 35 yards. He also had the game-winner at the gun at Arizona State. SeniorJeff Locke handles the punting and kickoffs, and. He's dropped half of his 54 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard-line and has nailed 54 touchbacks in 69 kickoff opportunities. Thigpen's been a solid kick returner, averaging nearly 27 yards, while Manfro has been excellent on punt returns. With both fighting injuries, Goforth and James the next options.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Despite five turnovers, the Trojans were able to move the ball well against Arizona State, thanks mainly to the efforts of senior tailback Curtis McNeal, who gained 163 yards on 31 carries and scored three TDs, including one on a screen pass. The Trojan front five exerted its will on an attacking Sun Devil front and Matt Barkley was able to overcome a three-interception performance by throwing for three TDs as well. There were the odd stops and starts that Trojan fans have become accustomed to, but many hope that USC's dominant second half puts the group in the right mindset for this week's rivalry showdown.

McNeal's big day came along unexpectedly, as Silas Redd sat out with an undisclosed injury. There are questions about his return this week, which would leave the Trojans' running back depth slim. At the same time, some have wondered how Robert Woods is mentally struggling with becoming Barkley's second option as Lee's star has continued to rise. Take a look at Lee's 80-yard catch-and-run TD last week and marvel at Woods' hustle to help out near the end of the run. Then stop asking that question.

Woods and Lee are expected to get one heck of a workout against UCLA's struggling pass defense this weekend (along with Nelson Agholor and Xavier Grimble). But don't sleep on USC's ball carriers. Kiffin's love for bubble screens becomes less maddening with a solid running attack. Not only that, but UCLA's defense is extremely focused on rushing the passer - opening the Bruins up to the run, much like ASU. Remember, UCLA allows just four fewer rushing yards per game than USC - but the Bruins didn't face Oregon in 2012 and haven't faced Stanford yet. Just take a look at their rush defense numbers against Cal and ASU if you think the Bruins aren't vulnerable. McNeal and Redd could be the silent partners that make big days possible for Woods and Lee this weekend.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojans' defense bounced back in a big way last Saturday. Arizona State scored in the game's opening moments on a 34-yard TD pass after USC fumbled on its opening offensive play. The Devils' second TD came on a 70-yard interception return on an inexplicable play call (that also featured poor execution). Outside of that, ASU managed three points. Credit that to a minor - but major - tweak that allowed USC defenders to run to the football and attack the Sun Devil offense. USC's seven sacks and 250 total yards allowed were a far cry from the previous five-and-a-half quarters of read-and-(don't really)-react football.

Interestingly, facing a Sun Devil offense that relied heavily on its backs and tight end as pass catchers was a nice tune-up for the Trojans before they face UCLA this weekend. ASU still has many facets of Mazzone's offense in play. However, the Devils don't have anyone close to the caliber of Franklin carrying the football. The Bruin senior belies his physique with tough running and has been crucial to Hundley's success by taking the pressure off the redshirt freshman.

Expect the Trojan defense to attack UCLA's wideouts in more one-on-one looks, while USC loads up to get after Franklin and put some heat on Hundley. USC must slow UCLA's running attack to minimize Hundley's effectiveness. At the same time, the Trojan defensive ends cannot afford to get suckered as they did repeatedly against Oregon, as Hundley is an excellent runner - which also means the Trojans must not leave the middle of the field open with their pass rush.

The Pick
As usual, when the Trojans and Bruins face off, there has been no shortage of storylines for the fans to chew on all week. UCLA's move to end the USC drum major's tradition of stabbing the field prior to the game shows the Bruins and their fans are feeling a little more frisky this year after putting together a solid season and having a real chance to finally earn the South Division title they were granted by default a season ago.

However, aside from the fact that the venom in the crowd is sure to be more lively and that, emotionally, the Bruins won't resemble the white-clad zombies that got bombed in the Coliseum a season ago, where does all the pre-game back-and-forth leave us? It leaves us with two good but flawed football teams fighting for a berth in the Pac-12 title game and, more importantly, for the city and for pride. Those flaws are pretty clear - the Bruins have actually committed more penalties than the Trojans this season, if you can believe it; USC has committed 13 turnovers in its past three games. Which team will fix those problems first on Saturday?

For the first time since 2005, there's something more on the line for both teams - and the chippiness shows it. The keys for UCLA? Get Franklin going, force turnovers from the suddenly charitable Trojans, and try to put Barkley on his back early and often. For the Trojans? Hold on to the damn football, get Woods and Lee into space as much as possible, and slow Franklin. It's going to be emotional, and it might not be pretty at times, but if the Trojans limit their turnovers and minimize UCLA's big plays, it should be another USC win.

USC 41, UCLA 31

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants


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