The coaches say it is just another game. The players say it is just another game. It’s what they hear the coaches pontificate. No fan on either side will ever accept it as just another game. You live with the outcome at work and at school for a year. Two years from now, few outside those in social media geekdom will remember what happened in this year’s Arizona game. But they will recite stats, play sequences and turning points in the UCLA-USC game. Players who have gone through the game admit it, after their playing days, that UCLA vs USC is much more than a game. Saturday is the 90th edition of the rivalry.
UCLA vs USC Is Much More Than A Game
Still not convinced? Former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman is in both the college football and NFL halls of fame. UCLA fans give him all that with an asterisk because he was 0-2 against USC. Cade McNown left UCLA under an investigative cloud and never had much of a career at the next level. But he is heralded for being 4-0 against the Trojans. USC quarterback Todd Marinovich had a long shopping list of on and off-field problems…..but Trojan fans certainly remember him winning the 1990 shootout over Tommy Maddox and the Bruins. Bruins and Trojans lore is made in this game.
Add in the visuals of both teams wearing their home uniforms, the bands, and the fans trash talking the entire game.
A Different Year
That brings us to 2020 where the game will be played at the Rose Bowl with no fans in the stands, no pep rallies the week of the game, no bands, and little idea what to expect from either team because of the shortened season. USC comes in 5-0 with a shot at the conference championship game next weekend. UCLA is 3-2 with a winning record for the first time in the Chip Kelly era. This is far different than both teams going in fired up and with at least 10 games under their belts.
“That’s one of the real unfortunate things about 2020 is the fact that fans, and parents, and family members can’t attend games. It’s just different,” Kelly said this week. “We’re grateful and fortunate that we have an opportunity to play, but there’s a lot of things that are missing from what we’re going through.”
Year Three Of Chip Kelly Influence On The Rivalry
Kelly is 1-1 against USC in his time in Westwood. In 2018, the Bruins put grad transfer quarterback Wilton Speight against then-phenom quarterback JT Daniels. The Trojans won the signal caller match-up, but UCLA won the game. Daniels threw for 337 yards, to Speight’s 166. But UCLA running back Joshua Kelley had the game of a lifetime with 289 yards rushing and two touchdowns on forty carries to lift the Bruins to a 34-27 win.
Last season was a bit of a trashing at the Coliseum. USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis was 37 of 47 for a staggering 515 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-35 win over counterpart Dorian Thompson-Robinson and UCLA. Thompson-Robinson was a decent enough 26 of 44 for 367 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Most UCLA fans would take those numbers in a heartbeat. But most would prefer Speight’s prior year numbers and a win.
USC’s Potent Offense
Slovis is just as good this season. He has 1,257 yards through the air to go with 10 touchdowns against only two interceptions. He is throwing at a 72% completion rate, just slightly above last year’s.
Of Slovis, Kelly said, “Any time you’re playing a quarterback like Kedon you can’t let him stand back there because he will pick you apart. You have to try to disrupt the timing.” In fact, that is the lone knock on Slovis. He is outstanding in the pocket, but significantly less so when he is forced to throw on the run.
Although he lost key receiver Michael Pittman to the NFL, he is still surrounded by immense talent at the receiver position. Amon-Ra St. Brown leads the team in receiving with 331 yards and four touchdowns. Drake London is right behind him with 330 yards on 20 catches and Tyler Vaughns adds 254 yards over the five games. Conversely the only receiver UCLA has with more than 300 yards is tight end Greg Dulcich at 312 yards. Kelly said, “It is going to take all 11 on defense to defend this group because there is such a group of talented receivers. They do such a good job of spreading it out to all their receivers. There is a lot of weapons at the wideouts.”
There are three things USC lacks for this game. First, they lack a sustained running game. Take into account Slovis’ lost yards on sacks, and the Trojans netted only five yards rushing in the win over Washington State Sunday night. Vavae Malepai leads the team with a total of 145 yards on the season. As a team, they have only 552 yards on the season. UCLA’s Demetric Felton has more than that by himself. Add in Brittain Brown and Thompson-Robinson and others and UCLA has more than 1,200 yards on the ground.
The second thing USC does not have is speed on the edges. The UCLA defense has proven to be vulnerable to quarterbacks and running backs who can tuck the ball and hit the outside corner quickly. Slovis is a traditional drop back quarterback who prefers the pocket. And none of the Trojans running backs are quick to the edge.
The Lake Factor
The third thing USC lacks is UCLA defensive back Quentin Lake. The redshirt junior missed the USC game last year with an injury. He somewhat jokingly said his being on the field this year will be a difference for the UCLA defense. “One, I’m out there,” Lake said with a wry grin when asked to explain the potential differences with last year. “Last year I was on the sidelines, and this time I know I will be in the game so I would say that is a pretty big difference.”
Lake said the USC receivers are very talented and coached very well. “They’re very fundamental receivers. They know how to get into and out of breaks and they read zone coverage real well. It’s just another test.”
A Win Is Everything, Even In 2020
It is a shortened season, so team defense stats are to be taken with a grain of salt because they have not had to endure a 12-game season. But the Bruins, in total team defense have gone from one of the worst defenses in the country the last two years to the Top 50 in college football. Kelly said there is a big difference with last year’s defense that got beat up in the game. “I think we’ve got more athletes on the field and we can match what they’re doing.”
A better defense, no rivalry week pranks, no fans in the stands…..it certainly has the makings of a different game altogether.