Know Your Opponent: UCLA at USC


UCLA and USC face off this weekend for the Pac-12 South. The winner faces Stanford in the Pac-12 Title Game for a probable Rose Bowl berth. The Crosstown Showdown kicks off at 1230pm this weekend on ABC. Here is your UCLA at USC Preview!

History of the Series

UCLA’s overall record against USC is 31-44-7. The Bruins have won the last 3 games in the series (all under Coach Jim Mora), and are looking to win 4 in a row for only the second time (the Bruins won 8 in a row from 1991-1998 and won 3 in a row against the Trojans from 1953-1955). USC has enjoyed long periods of dominance over the history of the series; the Trojans won 13 of the first 15 games from 1929-1949, and were 15-6-1 over the Bruins from 1960 to 1981. The breaking of UCLA’s steak in 1999 started one of USC’s best runs in the series; the Trojans won 10 out of 11 games from 1999 to 2011 and that’s after two games were vacated (so those games didn’t happen, right?).

Thankfully for Bruin fans, Jim Mora has put UCLA back on top.  In 2012, the Bruins exorcised much of the pain from a decade of failure with a dominating 38-28 victory that was punctuated by Anthony Barr’s sack on Matt Barkley. 2013 marked the first Bruin victory at the Coliseum since 1997; after the game, Brett Hundley coined the oft-repeated (too often, some would say) phrase “UCLA runs L.A., now”. Last year, the Bruins beat the Trojans 38-20 and Brett Hundley finished his career undefeated vs the Trojans with 326 yards passing and 4 total touchdowns.

Since Mora arrived in Westwood he has faced a rogues gallery of Trojan coaches. Mora has already bested  Lane Kiffin (2012), Ed Orgeron (2013), and Steve Sarkisian (2014). This year’s matchup against interim coach Clay Helton gives Mora the chance to go 4-0 against 4 different USC coaches (which would be a weird first in the series – only made possible by two fall firings).

UCLA Offense vs USC Defense

Kessler to Smith-Schuster happens a lot… Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The Tojans come into the regular season finale averaging 35.6 points per game (25th in FBS overall and 4th in the Pac-12). However that number drops to 30.9 points for conference only games (7th in the Pac-12). USC has been an explosive offense this season and has playmakers all over the field, but they have also been inconsistent at times.

The last three games have been marked by slow starts and long lulls in productivity. The Trojans started the game against Arizona with three 3 and outs and a fumble en route to spotting the Wildcats a 14 point first quarter lead (USC bounced back to win the game 38-30). Against Colorado, USC managed just 6 first half points and four drives of 4 plays or less; they were down 17-6 after two quarters (the Trojans came back in the 2nd half to win the game 27-24). Last week against Oregon, the Trojans were tied 14-14 early in the 2nd quarter, but could not keep pace with the Ducks. Oregon scored 24 unanswered points and eventually beat USC 48-28.

As has been the case with the Bruins, USC fans have complained about the boom or bust nature of the Trojan offense. USC ranks pretty high in most statistical categories. Advanced stats have USC at #16 in the S&P+, but followers of USC lament the Trojans tendency to regularly pick up nice chunks of yardage and then stall out before scoring.

With that being said, the Trojans are still a team filled with play-makers. Senior quarterback Cody Kessler (69%, 2953 yards, 8.4 yards/attempt, 25 TD’s, 6 int) has received criticism for not pushing the ball down the field at times, but he has proven to be steady and reliable over the years at getting the ball to the USC play-makers. He was a red-shirt the last time the Trojans beat the Bruins, so expect his best effort this Saturday in an effort to get his first proper victory against UCLA.

Ro-Jo 2.0 – This dude is really good… but can he block? Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Trojans have impressive platoons at the skill positions. In the backfield, expect Justin Davis (646 yards, 5.6/attempt, 5 TDs) and Ronald Jones (827 yards, 6.8/attempt, 7 TDs) to try and expose the UCLA running defense. “Magic Man” Tre Madden (418 yards, 5.4/attempt, 5 TDs) has missed the last three games from an injury but may also contribute this Saturday. Any and all of these backs were highly recruited and have the potential to dominate a game. Jones has the biggest play making ability,  but is also the most inexperienced pass blocker and receiver. The question will be whether the USC offensive line can bounce back from a bad performance against the Ducks.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (68 catches, 1217 yards, 10 TDs) is the unquestioned leader of the receiving corp and may be the best player on the field for USC. However, he has suffered numerous injuries over the last few games, and his effectiveness during Saturday’s game will be a big question mark. If he is limited, it will be vital for the other Trojan receivers to step up and make plays for Kessler.

The UCLA defense has rounded into a solid unit after being devastated by injury earlier in the first half of the season. With a more stable lineup over the last five games, the Bruins have improved in almost every statistical category (see below): [table id=127 /]

The improvement is even more impressive when you consider that the first half of the season includes out of conference games against Virginia and UNLV (or it shows how bad the Bruins were in the first three conference game – you pick). The bottom line is that the Bruin defense is playing as well as it has all season. Will the inconsistent Trojan line be able to slow the Bruin front 4 from getting consistent pressure on Kessler? Will the Trojans be able to exploit the Bruins for big plays down the field? Will the Trojans commit to running the ball? Can the Trojans (39% 3rd down conversions for the season) control the clock against the Bruins even if they want to? The answers to these questions will likely determine the game this Saturday.

USC Defense vs UCLA Offense

The Trojan defense has been pretty good throughout the season, but is coming off an absolutely dreadful performance against Oregon. While UCLA suffered injuries early in the season, USC has been hit with the injury bug lately. The Trojans lost their top two middle linebackers for the season a couple weeks ago (Lamar Dawson and Cameron Smith) and the secondary has been reshuffled several times. Consequently, the Trojan defense was repeatedly caught out of position and exploited for big plays by the Ducks. Su’a Cravens is the best player on the USC defense, and he will make plays all over the field this Saturday. Cravens is 2nd on the team in total tackles (42), and he leads USC in both sacks (5.5) and tackles for a loss (13.5).

USC has been stout against the run all year, and since allowing 6.11 yards/carry to Notre Dame, the Trojans have allowed more than 3.9 yards/carry only once (that was 4.5/carry last week vs Oregon). Paul Perkins has not had his biggest games against the Trojans, but expect the Bruins to give him the ball enough to try and keep the Trojan defense honest.

With that being said, the USC pass defense has struggled throughout most of the season. The Trojans have allowed at least 2 touchdown catches in each of the last 6 games, and the better quarterbacks on the USC schedule have all had big days against the Trojans (see below): [table id=128 /]

Will the Trojans bounce back from the Oregon performance and be able to stop Josh Rosen and company? A big part of that will be the Trojan’s ability to rush the passer. Over the past three games the Trojans are averaging over five sacks per game and nine tackles for a loss. Much of the pressure has been manufactured with blitzes that have left the Trojans vulnerable on the edges and down the field. The UCLA offensive line and Rosen’s slippery footwork have allowed UCLA to give up only 1 sack per game (#8 in FBS and #1 in the Pac-12), but they also had some injury problems against Utah (Connor McDermott and Alex Redmond both left the game). The Bruins have been great at handling all kinds of pressure throughout the year (with the exception of the Arizona State game), but a lineup shakeup may change that. The Trojan’s ability to sack Rosen when they choose to blitz will likely be a big determining factor in this game.

Special Teams and the Penalty X-Factor

Both teams have points of strength on special teams. USC’s Adoree Jackson is one of the most electrifying returners in the country while UCLA has struggled to find a consistent return threat all year (although the reliable Devin Fuller came back for the Bruins last week). UCLA’s Ka’imi Fairbairn is arguably the best kicker in the country with a 91% FG accuracy (6th in FBS) and 73% touch-back percentage (3rd in FBS). Both teams average and give up about the same starting field position on drives (average field position starts around the 28 yard line for both teams and both team’s opponents), so a significant edge in average field position this Saturday could make a big difference in the outcome.

The same could be said about penalties. USC (7.6/game) and UCLA (8.6/game) are 11th and 12th in the Pac-12 in penalties respectively. If either team can get on the officials’ good side and/or clean up their game, it could be a game-changer.


UCLA has played its best games the last three years against the Trojans. Don’t expect anything less than a solid effort from the Bruins this Saturday with the added stakes of the Pac-12 South on the line. On the flip side, USC has been unpredictable all season with the early coaching turmoil and the late season injuries. UCLA seems to be the surging team and the recent history of the series points towards another year in Westwood for the Victory Bell.

UCLA 31 USC 17