After four months (not counting last spring) and 11 games, all the preliminaries are out of the way. The big one is finally here. UCLA will travel all of 12 miles to play in the school's old stomping ground, the venerable Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, against cross-town rivals, the Trojans of USC.
Both programs are young this year; both have been affected by injuries; both have lost some key games. Both schools' fan bases have been swayed in their thinking by "streaks" - that is, contemplating wins and losses based on chronology as opposed to other factors such as relative team strengths, styles, game locations, key players' health, and so on. Let's deal with that for just a second.
Streaks can have an effect - if the players allow them to. But if you look at the opponents involved, you quickly see other factors.
Those who like to believe in magic - and reporters and editors looking for an angle to hype controversy and viewership/readership - love to glom onto streaks and other conspiracy theories. (Like, every time a quarterback is replaced it's time for the media to dust off the old "quarterback controversy" headlines.)
The streak concept implies that wins or losses occur primarily - or at least very largely - because things are either falling apart for the team (losing streaks) or coming together (winning streaks). Such things do occur. But in the case of this year's editions of the Bruins and Trojans, we think that just hasn't been the case.
It's been well-documented that in UCLA's case, the Bruins caught three out of conference opponents early in rebuilding cycles, were a year ahead of them in this process, and were actually the better team in each instance. Winning at Tennessee was a solid victory; the other two we have to say kind of figured. After that the Bruins drew five Pac10 opponents all of whom have been ranked in the top 25 this season. The Bruins were quite competitive in a few of those games but lost all five; thus, claims of a "losing streak" as if the Bruins were suddenly doing something wrong and that's what was causing the losses.
Then UCLA drew the three worst teams in the Pac 10 in consecutive games, two of which they got to play on their home field. The result has been three wins. The Bruins have suddenly turned things around? Perhaps, perhaps, but that just doesn't seem like the primary reason for those victories. Still, if the timing generates confidence, which really is a plus heading into this week's potentially season-making game.
USC started the year with high hopes, but with an experience level in key places that didn't quite justify the expectations. Injuries mounted up as well. A true freshman quarterback - albeit one with enormous potential - and only one true go-to wide receiver this year plus injuries hurt as well. A win at in an over-rated Ohio State, while impressive, pushed the Trojans' stock into the over-rated category. The very next week - as has occurred in past seasons - the Trojans suffered a surprise upset loss to a lowly conference opponent.
This one, however, has some extenuating circumstances, as the loss was on the road, in wet weather, to a Washington program now headed by SC's former offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian and with two other former USC coaches also on the staff. Let-down loss, to former SC coaches - sages around the country nodded their heads knowingly, dropped the Trojans not very far in the rankings, and moved on.
However, USC has now lost two of their last three games. That "streak" has encouraged Bruins and created dissention in the ranks of the SC faithful. But there are other ways to look at this. First, the losses were at Oregon, which plays this weekend for the conference championship, and to Stanford, a team with a great, very big running back and a young but talented and very accurate passer to complement him.
Sandwiched in between was a narrow five point win over Arizona State which UCLA just defeated by ten points this past weekend. Still, SC won in Tempe while UCLA had the benefit of playing the Devils in the comfy confines of the Rose Bowl - before an embarrassingly intimate gathering of players' relatives and just a bit more than a handful or two of UCLA fans. The results, it seems to me, are rather similar.
The size of the blow-out losses to Oregon and Stanford, however, seem to fans of both schools relevant when analyzing this matchup.
The keys to the game are the running games on both sides, the turnover battle, and who can pull off big plays at key moments. That is often the case, but the previously presented statistical comparison of the two teams underscores those factors in this game.
For the Trojans, the big news after having a bye week to heal up, is that USC's true big threat at wide receiver, 6-1 190-pound junior Damian Williams, has been cleared to play. Williams is coming off a high ankle sprain injury.
If Williams is anywhere close to 100 percent, his mere presence opens up the field for USC's true freshman quarterback, Matt Barkley (6-2, 230). Barkley, the country's top quarterback recruit last year, has struggled in his first season.
Like his counterpart for UCLA, redshirt freshman Kevin Prince, Barkley missed some time due to injury. That, his inexperience, and the fact that this year's USC wide receiver corps isn't up to the incredibly high standards of recent seasons, has caused Barkley some problems as he has turned the ball over at bad moments.
In Saturday's game, any moment is a bad one for a turnover. And in UCLA, the Trojans face the Pac 10's leaders (along with Cal) in causing turnovers.
UCLA's Rahim Moore leads the conference - and the entire nation - in interceptions with nine already this season; UCLA senior Alterraun Verner is tied for second place in the conference with four; sophomore Akeem Ayers is just one pick behind. UCLA behemoth defensive tackle Brian Price has a huge lead in the Pac 10 in tackles for loss and the top of the list includes three other Bruins; two Trojans also make the list. The Trojans lead the Pac 10 in sacks. Clearly, turnovers could well decide the outcome.
The Trojans have the statistical advantage in this one, but not by all that big a margin. The Bruins enjoy an edge in some important areas including the kicking game, headed by the nation's best field goal kicker, Kai Forbath.
USC opened as a 13 point favorite. Favoring the home team, SC, certainly makes sense. On the other hand, some of that double-digit margin is on name recognition, and more of it is on the advantage inherent in having the home field. But home field sometimes doesn't matter so much in a true rivalry game, especially this one in which both teams are playing at home, so to speak. And, reality or not, the Bruins will take the field as a pretty confident group.
Both teams' offensive coordinators and head coaches are going to play this one close to the vest. Both know all too well that it's going to be a lot easier to lose this game by making a big mistake or two than it will be to actually go out and win it. That could keep the scoring down and the margin close and that in turn could favor Forbath and the Bruins.
The Trojans are going to try to ride their outstanding running game to win the battle of field position, time of possession, and points scored on the ground. They will hope to take advantage of the Bruins' season-long struggle to maintain gap integrity to pound their way down the field and, they hope, break Joe McKnight loose for a few long runs. Matt Barkley will hope to pull the Bruins' secondary in so he can surprise them with a couple back-breaking long connections to Williams. Of course, Bruin defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough knows this. And Pete Carroll knows that he knows. So the guessing game beings.
On offense, UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who knows Carroll's defensive tendencies better than anyone, will try to counter by controlling the ball - and the clock - with his own offense. He will try to ride "the Train" Chane Moline, UCLA's own big back, and hope to spring Johnathan Franklin, Derrick Coleman, Milton Knox or Damien Thigpen for a surprise breakaway. He will ride the arm of Kevin Prince with throws to possession receivers Taylor Embree, Logan Paulsen, Ryan Moya and Terrence Austin, trying to set up longer connections to the fast-emerging, extremely athletic, Nelson Rosario.
Pete Carroll - who is the man behind SC's defense, the front seven of which are all underclassmen - knows this, of course. And Chow and Rick Neuheisel know he knows, so they will be looking for an edge, hoping to spring a few trick plays at the right times and praying their youngsters don't screw them up at the start by lining up wrong. Again.
The Trojans hope to over-power the very young Bruins, to get away early and avoid being overtaken by a late Bruin surge. The Bruins hope to keep it close, to stay in it, and then win out either on Rosario's athleticism and connection with Prince, or on Forbath's brilliant toe.
The Trojans are favored, but the Bruins believe the field has leveled; they believe they can win this game even-up and they are going out there to try to do just that.