As we noted Thursday, this weekend is the 89th renewal of the Crosstown Showdown between LA’s two schools. Now we have the UCLA vs. USC preview.
Both teams seem to have gone through multiple seasons over the last three months already. UCLA started 1-5, including three out of conference losses. Attendance at home games at the Rose Bowl plummeted. Schools like San Diego State and Oregon State celebrated victories never before imaginable. Head coach Chip Kelly was more “direct” than usual in answering questions, and there was little levity going on. Then the Bruins rattled off three conference wins in a row. It got them in the middle of the Pac 12 South race and there was joy in “Kelly-ville” again. That was brought to an abrupt halt with last weekend’s ruthless beating by Utah.
Now at 4-6 overall, the Bruins need this win and one at home over Cal next weekend to be bowl eligible. Finishing the season with only one or two more wins than last year will not buy Kelly a lot of comfort space in the off-season. The assertions about the team’s youth are often over-stated. There is a need to perform in the here-and-now before much of the on-field talent that got them the four wins is gone next season.
The Trojans started 3-3 with a gauntlet of a first half schedule. Head coach Clay Helton was already on the hot seat going into the season. Splitting the first six games could have made it worse. But having to use three different quarterbacks, (starter J.T. Daniels, and back-ups Kedon Slovis and Matt Fink), probably helped buy him some mercy time. On top of that, USC was still in the search for their new athletic director. Really, there was no one who was going to pull the trigger in mid-season.
What got him actual sway was the on-field performance. The Trojans won four of their following five games, losing only to Pac 12 leader Oregon. If USC wins this game, and gets some help with a Utah loss over the next two weeks, it is the Trojans who will be playing Oregon in the Pac 12 title game in December. In most cases the coach’s job is safe at that point. But Helton has never been an easy fit or obvious sell at USC. There are enough sources that say a coaching search with new athletic director Mike Bohn is already under way.
USC opened the week as a 13 ½ point favorite. The Trojans have home field advantage and some momentum. They also are playing a freshman quarterback who started the season as a back-up but has been good enough to probably send former starter Daniels looking for another school in the off-season. Kedon Slovis is completing passes at a 70% clip. He has thrown for more than 2,700 yards to go with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
UCLA’s Kelly says what makes Slovis dangerous is that he has several weapons at his disposal in the passing game. “There’s a ton of really talented receivers there, as talented of a receiver group from top to bottom that we’ll face this season.” Michael Pittman sits on top of that group, (along with Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown). The senior from Woodland Hills is currently sixth in the country in receptions per game at seven-and-a-half. He is 15th in receiving touchdowns with nine, and 15th in receiving yards with 101 per game. Kelly on Pittman, “He’s tall, he’s long, he’s fast, he runs great routes, he’s got great hands. When you play someone of his caliber, it is going to take the entire defense.”
The defense for UCLA could be an issue. They are ranked 105th in total defense in the country and give up an average of 442 yards per game. Utah took them for 556 yards. The Trojans do not have any run game that comes close to resembling Zack Moss and Utah. Still the defensive backs and linebackers are going to be taxed by USC’s passing game. The defense is going to have to be able to get a pass rush on USC, something it has not done very often this season.
The other side of the ball is a little bit more of a fair fight on paper. USC is the #71 defense in the country. They give up a little over 400 yards per game. The UCLA offense spent most of the first six weeks in the low 100’s. They got as high as 68th during the three-game win streak. They dropped to 78th after managing just 269 yards and three points against Utah. Even with that floor of a performance, they are getting 392 yards per game.
It’s easy to say the key is the offensive line and its protection, or a balanced attack. Those things are true for any team. The key is which Dorian Thompson-Robinson shows up. Is it the DTR who reacts quickly, and is definitive in his decision making? Is it the one who knows when to leave the pocket, get his yards and live to move the markers forward? Or is it the evil twin who has, at times retreated backwards when his pocket collapses, giving up massive yards on sacks, (something Chip Kelly has denied happens, but the tapes say otherwise). Will it be the one who showed up in Salt Lake City and couldn’t chuck the ball away under pressure, instead running in multiple directions behind the line of scrimmage to try to keep a play alive?
The good Thompson-Robinson has games like he did against Colorado (21 of 28 for 226 yards and two touchdowns). Or a half like he did against Washington State where he lit up the field in the last 30 minutes and his game seemed to turn the corner. That was before it turned back the other way in subsequent games. The 17 touchdowns are fine, but the 10 interceptions are a problem. And the seven fumbles lost leads the nation among quarterbacks in what is only a dubious statistic.
Thompson-Robinson does not have to be spectacular for UCLA to have a shot to win. He simply has to be good, be decisive, and be mostly error-free. If he is the free-flowing DTR, it opens up other elements of the offense. Joshua Kelley does not need to repeat his 289-yard performance from last season for the Bruins to be in the game. But UCLA needs him to have something better than the 78-yards/zero touchdown game that he did against Utah. That is not on entirely on him. If Thompson-Robinson is self-destructing, it becomes too easy to defend the rest of the offense.
USC is going to a bowl game regardless of Saturday’s game. The level of bowl depends on winning, (barring a Utah collapse that puts USC in the conference title game). UCLA needs some momentum. As much as Kelly refuses to acknowledge that theory in football, finishing the season 5-7, (assuming a win over Cal in the final week), is not enough of an improvement over last year with this talent.
As should be the case, the UCLA-USC game comes down to much more than possession of the Victory Bell at the end of the day.