Perhaps the most interesting matchup of Week 13 of the 2014 college football season also happens to be one of the most heated rivalries in college sports, as the No. 11 UCLA Bruins (8-2 overall; 5-2 in Pac 12) get set to host the No. 24 USC Trojans (7-3 overall; 6-2 in Pac 12) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
The Pac-12 South division has USC on top, but four other ranked teams are right behind them, with UCLA in second place and looking up at their crosstown foes. The Bruins are riding a four-game winning streak, and have defeated the Trojans in their past two meetings, but will face a tough test against head coach Steve Sarkisian’s improving offense.
The Trojans offense has pounded their most recent opponents, scoring a total of 82 points against the Washington State Cougars and the California Golden Bears. Aside from a 13-point effort in a home win against the Stanford Cardinal on Sept. 6, and posting 21 points on the road against the Utah Utes on Oct. 25, the Trojans have scored 28 points or better in eight games.
Quarterback Cody Kessler has enjoyed a much-improved season from 2013. The junior has thrown for 29 touchdowns and just three interceptions, to go along with 2,919 passing yards. Should Kessler put up big numbers and lead the Trojans to victories over the Bruins on Saturday and at Notre Dame on Nov. 29, he could be a surprise Heisman Trophy candidate.
“The Heisman is not something that’s important to me,” Kessler said last week. “Winning games is the most important thing to me.
“If people say I’m under-rated or I don’t get as much attention, it really doesn’t bother me. I know that’s what you’re supposed to say, but I really mean it.”
Exciting wide out Nelson Agholor has been Kessler’s top target. The junior has 10 touchdown receptions and 1,079 receiving yards, and is projected to be drafted in the top three rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft. In perhaps his last game against the Bruins, Agholor is expected to be featured more prominently than in other matchups.
Agholor is joined by freshman sensation JuJu Smith, who has emerged as a big-play receiver after some quiet games following a sensational debut against Fresno State. Smith provided a glimpse of his explosive talents with four receptions for 123 yards against the Bulldogs, but failed to make much of an impact until a breakout game against the Colorado Buffaloes on Oct. 18 and a three-touchdown performance against Washington State on Nov.1.
The running game hasn’t done too shabby either. Buck Allen has already rushed for 1,184 yards and eight touchdowns. The junior has averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and was a major factor against Stanford when he tallied 154 yards. Allen’s three-touchdown, 205-yard effort against the Arizona Wildcats was among the best offensive performances for the Trojans this season.
The Trojan defense is led by junior tackle Leonard Williams, who is among the best college players in the nation and a possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Linebacker Hayes Pullard has had an exceptional season, and is a finalist for the Butkus Award.
The unit will be matching up against a Bruins offense that is No. 20 in total yards this season, and is coming off an open date on Saturday. They also have a quarterback who has been very accurate, and is capable of dodging even a strong pass rush like the one anchored by Williams and Pullard.
Brett Hundley has completed more than 72 percent of his passes this season, and thrown for 17 touchdowns, while rushing for seven more scores and 564 yards. Sarkisian conceded that pressuring Hundley is a concern.
“We’re going to have to be effective at it,” Sarkisian said Friday. “Brett Hundley is too good. We can’t just let him stand back there and survey the field, and then when it’s not there tuck the ball and run.
“Brett presents some interesting problems for a defense. One, he can make every throw. It’s not like you’re going to take something away in hopes that he can’t do something else. And then, obviously, the athleticism kicks in, especially on third down. You look at their conversion rate on third down, you look at how efficient they are in the red zone, those are really all a byproduct of his athleticism, his ability, when things aren’t there, to pull the ball down and run.”
Hundley is by no means a one-man show. Sophomore running back Paul Perkins has been a consistent force for head coach Jim Mora this season, rushing for 1,169 yards and six touchdowns. Perkins showed off his speed with a 92-yard run on the Bruins’ first play against Colorado on Oct. 25, and he’s received some help throughout the season from an offensive line that has opened up holes on so many occasions for the No. 29 rushing attack.
When Hundley isn’t handing the ball off to Perkins or looking for his own opportunity to scramble, he has often thrown to emerging wide out Jordan Payton. The junior has made strides from his freshman and sophomore campaigns when he caught a total of 46 passes for two touchdowns. Payton already has 58 receptions for 839 yards and seven touchdowns, and on a receiving unit that has nine players with 10 or more receptions this season.
While the defense has had its ups and downs this season, first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich can point to a strong effort against Arizona on Nov. 1, limiting the high-octane Wildcats to just 255 total yards and one touchdown. Sophomore defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes has enjoyed a strong season, and junior cornerback Fabian Moreau is developing into one of the better cornerbacks in the nation.
But the defense will encounter its biggest test since being crushed by Oregon at home on Oct. 11 to 468 yards and 42 points. Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota picked the Bruins apart, and the defense allowed the Ducks’ Royce Freeman to rush for 121 yards. The unit will need a stronger effort to contain Allen and Justin Davis.
Point Spread: UCLA by 3.5
Over/Under: 61 points
Prediction: This has the makings of a shootout, but don’t be surprised if both defenses step up. Expect the Bruins defense to focus on covering Agholor, which will likely mean Kessler will look for Smith and even George Farmer more often than usual. Sarkisian is right to focus on containing Hundley, but should worry about his ability to run after torching the USC defense for two touchdowns and 80 yards in the 2013 meeting. The Bruins’ ability to win the ground game might be the most important factor in this one.
Predicted Score: UCLA over USC, 28-21
An IBTimes staff reporter contributed to this report.