They meet again, this time in the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoon. It’ll be the 82nd edition between the two. Unfortunately, it’s been a decade since the Southern California-UCLA college football matchup started drifting away rivalry to one-sided domination.
Following a couple relatively competitive contests won by the Trojans to bridge millenniums, Pete Carroll’s arrival in 2001 as USC head coach signaled the end of any competition between the two, on the field or off. From blowout victories to Heisman Trophy winners to enticing fans and blue-chip recruits alike, the Cardinal-colored cross-town rival has had it all over the Bruins.
UCLA managed to scratch out a 13-9 decision in 2006, but that’s the only “gotcha” it can claim against USC since the 1990s. In the interim, the Trojans re-emerged as a national power and made Los Angeles pretty much all its own.
Not even the energy, enthusiasm and verbal challenges by Rick Neuheisel upon his return to UCLA as coach of his alma mater managed to register a blip on the relevance screen.
The cold, hard fact was the Bruins, no matter what they seemed to do, just did not compare with the Trojans. With USC racking up wins, first-round draft choices and attention, UCLA pretty much faded to black – in a national sense, in a regional sense, and, worst of all, in a local sense.
So much for those pretty, powder-blue jerseys never failing to catch people’s eyes …
The Bruins, virtually, had become non-existent, and if anyone really cared to notice, if they really wanted to know how UCLA stacked up against USC, last season’s 50-0 demolition in the Coliseum served as Exhibit A. Neuheisel was shown the door, and it seemed the Bruins were only looking at falling further behind.
Then a funny thing happened. They hit a home run in hiring Jim Mora as coach, and then he hit one himself in opting to go with Brett Hundley at quarterback. All the redshirt freshman has done is direct UCLA to an 8-2 mark, including a 5-2 record in the Pac-12 – the latter of those being significant because it places the Bruins in line for a spot in the conference title game … should they keep winning.
The team right on their heels in the circuit’s South Division? Yep, you guessed it – USC, which is 5-3 in the Pac-12 and 7-3 overall.
UCLA is higher ranked – 17th to the Trojans’ 18th. It has the more potent scoring offense, barely – 37.7 points per game to 36.9. It’s been tagged a slight favorite on betting lines. It’s also been hotter, having won four straight while USC recently endured a pair of gut-wrenching losses at Arizona and against No. 2 Oregon to close out October and begin November, respectively.
In short, it seems the tables have turned in this series, or were poised to do so.
However, a closer look may suggest that’s a stretch. Clearly, the Bruins have made inroads – just by becoming a viable entity for discussion once again among fans and media. They are bowl-bound, and, of course, there is that possible Pac-12 championship appearance right there for the taking.
But, the reality is, we’re only 12 months removed from last season’s beatdown by USC, and the Trojans still have Matt Barkley – author of 12,000 yards and 113 TDs passing in his career, including 423 and six in the teams’ previous meeting – at the helm.
Though his draft-position status seems to have taken a hit, and he won’t become the Trojans’ next Heisman winner, the senior signal-caller remains one of the best QBs in the conference, country and, statistically, in the history of the game. He has a fantastic pair of receivers in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, who have combined for 23 TD catches. Lee, frankly, might be the most dangerous weapon in the nation, having racked up more than 1,400 receiving yards and averaging 29.4 yards per kickoff return.
Toss in Penn State transfer Silas Redd at running back and the Trojans have a balanced offense that would make most Sunday coaches beam with confidence.
The one caveat, oddly, may be Barkley, who has tossed more than half of season’s total of interceptions (13) in the past three games (7).
Hundley, conversely, has been on fire of late. Part of the beauty of his season is that he hasn’t been merely a work in progress. He has performed at a high level right from the get-go, more than holding his own even in an early-season loss to Oregon State and star QB Sean Mannion. Hundley threw for 372 yards in that one, single-handedly keeping the Bruins alive until the very end.
His only poor effort came in a shocking midseason loss at downtrodden California. But the Bruins haven’t fallen since, and Hundley has posted career-best passer ratings each of the past three weeks, tossing 10 TDs in the process. He has thrown for 24, along with 2,739 yards, all told thus far in 2012.
The kid has some wheels, too, having run for six scores.
Hundley, like Barkley, has some help on offense – although his primarily comes from the backfield in senior RB Johnathan Franklin. A Heisman contender after back-to-back 200-yard rushing efforts to kick off this campaign, Franklin has settled down some since then. But he remains a quality option and enters this contest with 1,270 yards and eight TDs on the ground.
Neither defense ranks among the nation’s best, but each has standouts leading the way. For UCLA, linebackers Eric Kendricks (102 tackles) and Anthony Barr (11 sacks) are the headliners. For USC, senior safety T.J. McDonald tops the team with 83 tackles and junior end Morgan Breslin is the best pass rusher, having notched 9.5 sacks.
Considering the gap that has existed between the two programs for more than a decade, this matchup could offer a refreshing change – competition. It also could symbolize a changing of the guard, with the balance of power shifting to UCLA and “golden boy” status moving from Barkley to Hundley.
Could, of course, is the key word.