Los Angeles college football bragging rights, a possible trip to either the Sun Bowl or the Las Vegas Bowl, and perhaps an interim head coach’s job status are on the line on Saturday when the No. 23 USC Trojans (9-3) host the No. 22 UCLA Bruins (8-3) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Trojans have the momentum entering the rivalry game with a five-game winning streak under head coach Ed Orgeron. Since Lane Kiffin was fired, following a 62-41 loss to eventual Pac-12 South champion Arizona State, USC appears to be rejuvenated. Under Orgeron, the Trojans are 6-1, and their six wins have come by an average margin of over 14 points.
However, the lone loss under Orgeron was to long-time rival Notre Dame in South Bend, 14-10. While there have been numerous calls for Athletic Director Pat Haden to drop Orgeron’s interim tag, a loss to UCLA would severely weaken Orgeron’s chances of holding onto the position.
In a Sunday teleconference with reporters, Orgeron expressed irritation by USC’s loss to UCLA in 2012.
"Getting beat. Losing. Terrible taste in our mouth. Against our rival team. Not playing well. Letting down the Trojan family. Not a very good feeling,” said Orgeron.
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Another inspired effort by USC would mean Orgeron would be the overwhelming favorite to stay on as head coach. Known for being one of the best recruiters in the nation, the former Ole Miss head coach has received praise for raising the spirits of the program.
UCLA won’t have a shortage of incentive against USC. Not only will UCLA look to bounce back from a tight loss to Arizona State in Pasadena, a win over USC would mean a second-place finish in the Pac-12 South and a more impressive bowl berth.
UCLA’s season got off to a hot start and optimism was rampant in Westwood after a 5-0 record and a No.9 ranking, but the Bruins have stumbled to a 3-3 record since. An early-season road victory over Nebraska represents the lone win against a ranked opponent. The Bruins would later drop road games against then-No. 13 Stanford and then-No. 3 Oregon to severely hurt their chances of going to the Rose Bowl.
The memory of last season’s embarrassing effort against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl may still firmly be implanted in Jim Mora’s mind. In his first season as head coach, Mora helped UCLA earn a 38-28 victory over USC for a 9-2 record, but the Bruins would go on to lose the next two games to Stanford, and then were pounded by Baylor, 49-26.
A victory over USC would shed the perception that Mora’s squad falters late in the season. The Bruins have enjoyed a high-scoring season, and Mora may need a lot to go right against a tough USC defense that has only allowed two opponents to score more than 30 points.
Both offenses rely heavily on redshirt sophomores. For the Bruins, quarterback Brett Hundley has been a major weapon. The redshirt sophomore outshined Matt Barkley last season, passing for 234 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for two scores.
Hundley may need to be at his most accurate for UCLA to earn the win. He threw two interceptions in losses to Stanford and Oregon and threw for a total of just 256 yards. The Bruins have played in four games since then, and Hundley has been impressive. He has thrown for eight touchdowns and only one interception, while converting 70 percent of his passes.
For USC, running back Buck Allen has emerged as an explosive force. After some solid performances in the first half the season despite limited carries, Allen has led a ground attack that has torched opposing defenses. He has rushed for over 130 yards in three of his last four games, and has 11 touchdowns with Orgeron as the head coach, compared to none under Kiffin.
Meanwhile, Cody Kessler has improved as the season has progressed. After earning the full-time job over Max Wittek, he had some struggles early in the season, but has looked more comfortable in recent games. Kessler has not thrown an interception in his last three games, while completing 80.5 percent of his passes to go along with five touchdowns in that span.
The Trojans have the better record in the rivalry, 46-29-7. UCLA won eight-straight games against USC in the 1990s, but the series has been dominated by USC since then, with the Trojans winning 12 of the last 14 games.
The betting odds at most Las Vegas casinos have USC favored by 3.5 points. Two of UCLA's three losses have come on the road.
Prediction: USC 34, UCLA 27
An IB Times staff reporter contributed to this report.