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November 29, 2013

USC vs. UCLA Game Preview

Game 13: 'It's Like This and Like That and Like This and Uh …'

After dropping 12 of 13 to USC, the Bruins finally got a win last season. Can they make it two in a row? Or will the Crosstown Showdown momentum bounce back to the Trojans?

The consensus No. 23 USC Trojans (9-3, 6-2 Pac-12 South) close out a tumultuous 2013 regular season by hosting the crosstown-rival UCLA Bruins (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12 South, consensus No. 22) this Saturday, November 30, at 5 p.m. PST in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC television audience. It's the 83rd meeting in the series, with USC owning a decisive 46-29-7 margin. The Trojans have won 12 of the past 14 contests between the schools - seven in a row at the Coliseum, including a 50-0 whitewash in the last meeting here in 2011. But it was the Bruins who emerged victorious, 38-28, a season ago at the Rose Bowl, ending USC's five-game overall winning streak in the series.

A week ago, the Trojans rolled to a 23-0 halftime edge - and a 37-7 third-quarter lead - before calling off the dogs in an eventual 47-29 victory over Colorado in Boulder. Tailback Javorious "Buck" Allen shook off an early shoulder injury to rush for 145 yards and three TDs, while the USC defense and special teams came up big again, forcing a pair of CU turnovers that turned into Trojan TDs, as well as blocking a punt through the end zone for a safety. Meanwhile, the Bruins' second-half rally fell just short as UCLA dropped a 38-33 decision to Pac-12 South champion Arizona State. UCLA fell behind 35-13 at halftime, as the Sun Devils appeared to be well on their way to clinching the crown. But Bruin QB Brett Hundley led a rally that finally stalled out when UCLA missed a field goal and turned the ball over on downs on its final two possessions.

Ed Orgeron, who was in his 11th season as a USC assistant (1998-2004; 2010-13) before becoming interim head coach on Sept. 29, spent three years as a head coach at Mississippi (2005-07), notching a 10-25 mark. He's 6-1 so far (6-0 in Pac-12 games) at USC, and many believe he can earn the full-time gig with a win on Saturday. In Westwood, UCLA headman Jim Mora (17-8) is in second season on campus. The former Seattle Seahawk and Atlanta Falcon head coach has revived Bruin football, giving UCLA an edge on defense and an attacking offense that had been missing for some time. The Bruins were the media's choice to win the Pac-12 South in 2013 after a solid step in the right direction last year, but have faltered against the better teams on their schedule. After losing out on a chance to control its own Pac-12 destiny by falling to ASU last week, it will be interesting to see how UCLA responds Saturday night.

UCLA Offense
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone continues to tweak the attack he's crafted in the Pac-12 during the past four seasons (2010-11 at Arizona State before joining Mora's staff at UCLA last season). Utilizing a mix of pistol and read-option looks - and a healthy dose of downfield passing - the Bruins have been able to overcome injury issues along the front five and in the backfield to rank in the national top 40 in all of the key categories (including No. 26 in scoring at 36.6 points per game). Hundley is the key to the whole shebang - as he goes, so go the Bruins. He leads the Pac-12 in completion percentage (67.9 percent) and has thrown for 22 TDs against nine INTs. He's also UCLA's second-leading rusher, with 507 yards and seven scores - even though he's been the victim of a troubling 32 sacks. But in the Bruins' three losses, Hundley has struggled mightily - throwing five interceptions and for 60 yards fewer per game than his season totals. Yes, he was nearly perfect in the second half against ASU last week, but only after a brutal first half that helped put UCLA in a hole it couldn't climb out of.

Hundley definitely spreads the wealth in the passing game. Senior Shaquelle Evans is his favorite target, especially when looking to reach the end zone. Evans has 42 grabs (14.4 yards per), eight for scores and is a playmaker. Sophomore Devin Fuller has come on during the season, with four scores among his 40 catches (but he sat out the ASU game with what many believe is a hip injury), while classmate Jordan Payton is averaging 12.3 yards on his 31 snags. Freshman Thomas Duarte (15 catches), sophomore Devin Lucien (14 catches, two TDs) and senior Darius Bell (15 grabs) also see time.

The UCLA backfield has been in constant flux since junior Jordon James suffered an injury at Utah that's kept him on the shelf for much of the past couple months. James looked primed to fill the shoes of the departed Johnathan Franklin, but with seniors Malcolm Jones and Damien Thigpen battling injuries of their own, the Bruins eventually turned to redshirt freshman Paul Perkins, who leads the team with 536 yards (4.5 per carry). But Perkins is not a powerful red-zone back - which led Mora and Mazzone to give freshman linebacker Myles Jack a look three weeks ago against Arizona. All Jack's done is average 7.6 yards per carry, with six TDs in just 35 totes - bringing new life to UCLA's short-yardage running attack.

And the Bruins needed a bruiser at running back, because their front five has suffered key injuries throughout the season, leaving UCLA with three true freshman starters lining up this Saturday. Starting tackles Torian White and Simon Goines are both out for the season - White's been gone since October and Goines, who returned last week after missing a number of games, broke his leg against ASU. These losses have forced junior Xavier Su'a-Filo, a natural at guard, back out to left tackle (where he's started four times) and placed freshman Scott Quessenberry at left guard and classmate Caleb Benenoch at right tackle. Only sophomore center Jake Brendel and right guard Alex Redmond - another true freshman - have started every game at the same spot.

UCLA Defense
Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos worked with Mora to create a more physical and disruptive unit since arriving in Westwood. UCLA's "soft" image needed an overhaul and though the Bruin defense is still middling statistically, they will hit you - sometimes too hard and too late, as witnessed by UCLA's penalty numbers - and they want to take the ball from you. The Bruins have forced 22 turnovers (giving up only 15 on offense), while notching 23 sacks out of their attacking 3-4 set. But UCLA has been gashed for 174 rushing yards per game (ranking 72nd nationally) and is allowing 25 points per game, including more than 30 points per in its past six.

Up front, combative senior DE Cassius Marsh is the group's emotional leader. He has four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss among his 51 stops. Classmate Keenan Graham sees time in passing situations mainly and is second on the team with five sacks. At the other end, a couple of former USC recruits, sophomore Ellis McCarthy and freshman Eddie Vanderdoes, share time. Vanderdoes has been more consistent (38 stops), but McCarthy does own two sacks. In the middle, senior Seali'i Epenesa (15 tackles) has been pushed by freshman Kenny Clark (25 stops, 2.5 for loss).

The Bruins' defensive playmakers are at linebacker. Seniors Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt, junior Eric Kendricks and Jack are athletic playmakers across the board. Kendricks leads UCLA with 95 stops from one inside spot, while fellow insider Zumwalt counts 5.5 tackles for loss among his career-high 75 tackles. With USC's more traditional offense, expect to see Jack (67 tackles, five for loss, INT, fumble recovery) back at one outside spot after he spent the ASU game exclusively at running back. Then there's Barr, the All-American who returned for his senior season and has been targeted by most offenses the Bruins have faced. Yet he's still been a force, ranking seventh nationally in tackles for loss (17), while notching eight sacks, four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.

The Bruins have started the same foursome in the secondary in each game this season - but that streak seems to be in jeopardy due to a hamstring injury suffered by sophomore CB Fabian Moreau (47 tackles) against Arizona State. If Moreau can't go, expect to see both starting safeties - junior Anthony Jefferson and sophomore Randall Goforth - take a shot at his spot. Jefferson's 77 tackles rank second on the team and he also has two picks, while Goforth has three interceptions and 66 tackles. Freshman Tahaan Goodman would likely backfill at safety. Sophomore CB Ishmael Adams has been UCLA's top playmaker in the secondary, with a team-leading four picks. Senior Brandon Sermons is the Bruins' nickel back (30 tackles).

UCLA Special Teams
Sophomore Ka'imi Fairbairn is the Bruins' PAT and field goal specialist. He's made 48-of-49 PATs, but just 14-of-20 field goals. He's got a big leg, but is only five-of-nine beyond 40 yards. He's split kickoff duties with freshman punter Sean Covington. Covington has 20 touchbacks on 36 kickoffs and is averaging 41.3 yards per punt, with 13 of his 44 boots pinning the opposition inside their own 20. Evans has handled punt returns (7.7 average on 15 opportunities) and Fuller and Steven Manfro kickoff returns most of the season. But with both kick returners out last week, Adams got a shot - and made the most of it - returning kickoffs 58 and 69 yards, as well as taking a punt 49 yards. USC must account for him this week.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Early in last week's game at Colorado, the Trojan offense looked like it needed some time to adjust to the cold. After scoring on its first drive, USC sputtered a bit - especially along the offensive line - before a Leonard Williams forced fumble and a Dion Bailey interception set up back-to-back TD scoring marches. At day's end, USC had its third incredibly balanced offensive performance in the past four games, rolling up 243 of their 449 total yards on the ground. And Cody Kessler continued to incorporate different weapons as they return to the lineup. Tight ends Xavier Grimble (a career-high six catches) and Randall Telfer (a 10-yard TD grab) looked healthier than they have in some time.

As usual, you can't talk about the Trojan offense without a quick injury report. Though Marqise Lee isn't 100 percent according to Orgeron, the Trojans expect to get every ounce of effort the star receiver can put forth on Saturday night. In the backfield, Tre Madden saw some time in Boulder and should be ready to go against the Bruins, but Silas Redd remains questionable (though he did take part in Wednesday's workout).

The key, though, against the Bruins will be USC's front five. With the loss in Pasadena last season, it's forgotten that Trojans gained more than 500 yards against UCLA, with tailback Curtis McNeal gashing the Bruins for 161 on the ground. The UCLA defense looks for game-changing plays - tackles for loss, big sacks, forced turnovers - but with a high-risk plan, they can be pushed around along the defensive front and taken advantage of in the secondary. USC's offensive line needs to be dominant in the run game and protect Kessler's blind side. A quick start is crucial for the Trojans once again. UCLA hasn't been overwhelmingly impressive in the first half, especially of late, while USC's 110-24 first-quarter scoring edge in 2013 has been a big reason why the Trojans have had success since Orgeron took over. I expect a healthy dose of Allen's power rushing attack early, along with the Trojans' newly effective (and diverse) screen game taking advantage of the Bruins' aggressive front seven. If the Trojan offensive line can set a tone early, expect Lee and Nelson Agholor to see some open looks in the UCLA secondary.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense was again dominant through three quarters, as USC built a 37-7 lead in Boulder. The only touchdown for CU to that point: a fumble return by the Buffs' defense. However, the strain of scholarship limits and injuries means that the drop from the Trojans' first-team defense to the reserves who see time in blowouts is much steeper than for most teams. It is astounding that the Trojan travel squad last week included only 46 originally recruited scholarship athletes. With that fact, it's just no shock that USC's defensive reserves fared poorly against Colorado's first-team offense. It's the second time in three weeks that USC's reserves have given up multiple touchdowns late in blowout wins.

But don't be fooled - unless the Trojans are hit with a flood of injuries in Saturday night's contest, that lack of depth will not be a factor. Leaders like Dion Bailey, Devon Kennard and Hayes Pullard won't be seeing much bench time against the Bruins' spread attack. One personnel key: will cornerback Kevon Seymour be available after suffering a rib injury in Colorado? If not, the Bruins will try to exploit Torin Harris in his stead.

Make no mistake: UCLA's offense revolves completely around Hundley's effectiveness. Unlike last season, when Franklin was a spectacular complement in the running game, the Bruins' rushing attack was in a shambles before the emergence of Jack in short-yardage situations. It will be interesting to see just how long what started as a gimmick stays effective. If USC can keep the Bruins out of short-yardage situations, it either limits how UCLA uses Jack - or forces the Bruins to add to his workload. At the same time, Hundley doesn't have a target like Joseph Fauria, the Bruins' tight end a season ago, to rely on in third-down and red-zone situations. Expect the Trojan defense to key on Hundley - USC has confidence in its pass rush, especially against the young Bruin line. Look for Williams, Kennard and George Uko to try to match the pressure Arizona State brought last week in Pasadena. At the same time, the Trojans' inside linebackers should be looking to keep Hundley hemmed in. If Seymour is healthy, I expect the USC secondary to play physically against the Bruins' receivers. Finally, the Trojans must be ready for UCLA's halftime adjustments. While the Trojans have been the fast starters in games, it's the Bruins who have been dominant in third quarters, outscoring opponents 112-34. The USC defense must be primed and ready coming out of the locker room at the half.

The Pick
A year ago, a troubled Trojan team dug itself a 24-0 hole in Pasadena and - though it had plenty of opportunities to forge a lead in the second half - could not find a way out. The Bruins took full advantage of the Trojan follies and came away with a deserved victory. Obviously, snapping your rival's five-game winning streak is going to be a feel-good moment. But let's not get carried away - as many in the local media have for months now. That was no "tide-turning" victory for the Bruins. They had to scrape and claw just to hold on against a team in total turmoil, one that would eventually fire its coach seven games (and 10 months) later.

Truly, Saturday is UCLA's chance to make the statement that they are ready to regain the mantle of the best team in town - a title the Bruins last held a decade-and-a-half ago. One win - after losing 12 of the previous 13 - is not a trend. Two wins would be. And, for much of the 2013 campaign, all indications were that UCLA would be heavily favored to start that trend. Isn't that right, Shaq Evans? After all, USC was without a coach, without a number of injured players, and without any apparent personnel answers thanks to seemingly never-ending NCAA scholarship limitations.

Yet, here we sit - the Trojans: owners of a better overall record. The Trojans: winners two weeks ago over Pac-12 North champion Stanford, which has whipped UCLA three times in the past 12 months. The Trojans: a game ahead in the Pac-12 standings. The Trojans: three-and-a-half point favorites. How the heck did this happen? Don't ask the local media - it doesn't fit the narrative of "Jim Mora as Pete Carroll." Don't ask the UCLA PR department, with their #BruinRevolution Twitter hashtag (based on a team that went 9-5 last season and has lost to its three toughest opponents this season). Don't ask Lane Kiffin, who would almost assuredly be preparing to oversee his second-consecutive loss to Mora's Bruins if he hadn't been relieved of his duties two months ago.

But you know whom you might want to ask at about 8:30 on Saturday night? Try to track down Ed Orgeron and his players. They just might have an answer for you.

USC 35, UCLA 24

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 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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