USC-UCLA playing for much more than Los Angeles crown

Posted on 28 November 2015

Without question, Saturday's USC-UCLA game could be better. It could be a battle of top-10 teams with College Football Playoff and Heisman Trophy implications. It could project gravitas nationally as several esteemed All-American candidates wax poetic in advance about theirs being the biggest, baddest and most important rivalry in college football -- the equivalent of Ali-Frazier or Katy Perry-Taylor Swift.

Yet there’s something almost majestic about the realized sloppiness in Los Angeles college football that will determine the Pac-12 South title, a game that will provide a potential exit from this winding, potholed, dirt road of a season -- don't forget the soul-quashing LA traffic! -- that could nonetheless lead into the Rose Bowl.

The winner between these beaten, bloodied and flawed teams with seven losses between them will be the South Division champ. It then will take on Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 5. More importantly, it will put the official stamp of misery and underachievement on its hated rival, a stamp that holds a shelf life of one calendar year.

UCLA junior linebacker Deon Hollins, holding a precious postgame pizza after he and the Bruins slogged through a 17-9 win over No. 13 Utah on Saturday, contemplated the general bigness of the matchup with a thoughtful look that suggested he briefly contemplated talking a wee bit of trash but then thought better of it.

“It’s more than a rivalry game -- a lot of us played with those players, know those guys," Hollins said. “There’s going to be a tremendous amount of ... Nah, I won’t say it ... energy? Energy. It’s going to be a great game.”

UCLA has won three consecutive battles with USC, meaning a majority of its locker room doesn't know what a loss to the Trojans feels like. Fourth-year Bruins on the cusp of seeking their post-college fortunes will be able to say for the rest of their lives -- and frequently, I'd guess -- "I never lost to USC" if they win Saturday.

Meanwhile, USC ... it's a bit of a mess. (Insert pause for Trojans fans to sigh). As some of you probably know, USC is again looking for a new head coach after Steve Sarkisian was fired under circumstances both sad and dumbfounding (an alleged drinking problem). The storybook idea of folksy, likable interim coach Clay Helton earning the full-time job went down at Oregon on Saturday in a flurry of touchdown passes from Vernon Adams.

USC's four-game winning streak that began with an impressive victory over then-No. 3 Utah went splat in a way that reminded everyone how disappointing the Pac-12 preseason favorite's season has been. The Ducks seemed to be almost jaunty as they dismantled a program that probably spent the ensuing sleepless night looking in the mirror going, "Gosh darnit, we're USC ... right? We're ... USC?"

Don't cackle too loudly, Bruins fans. UCLA coach Jim Mora was in a better mood Saturday after beating Utah than he was after his team yielded a stunning one-minute, game-winning drive at home last week to Washington State. He admitted that the locker room after that debacle was "like a morgue," and he also admitted he immediately worried about a "hangover effect."

No one -- not Mora, not Stanford coach David Shaw -- will deny that the 2015 Pac-12 season has been a slog. With potentially 10 bowl-eligible teams if Washington upsets Washington State in the Apple Cup but probably no team in the CFP, the "no weeks off" cliche of the preseason has become a reality. And that reality means disappointed fans and coaches forced to play week-to-week psychologists with their teams, managing unpredictable highs and lows instead of a narrative of steady ascension.

“You can throw out a score and it really wouldn't surprise me, who beat whom. That’s the Pac-12," Mora said. He then went graphic with the popular cannibalism metaphor: “We’ve kind of eaten each other."

It will be interesting to see if Mora's name starts to echo in the coaching rumor mill just as the USC coaching hunt begins to move front and center nationally. Mora winning a fourth straight over the Trojans would be a significant bullet point on his resume.

This game also is an interesting matchup of quarterbacks.

USC's Cody Kessler is the accomplished senior who has an NFL future but never reached the heights that his predecessors did. He's played for four different head coaches and tried to lead a team out of crippling NCAA sanctions amid perhaps unreasonable expectations that USC would immediately reclaim its place as a national contender. He's never beaten UCLA.

Meanwhile, UCLA has Josh Rosen, a true freshman who has been so good and so promising that coaches and teammates no longer even bother to hide the belief he's a special talent. He's never played USC.

“There’s something about him that is just different than other players out there," Mora said. "He’s a special one.”

USC would like to reclaim LA and stomp a boot print on the script that Saturday might be a coronation for Rosen.

Not surprisingly, the Bruins like the series' recent trend.

“All the older guys talk about the years before, how they were ashamed to walk around LA, ashamed to see all the USC gear in every store," Hollins said. "Now, those guys are so happy. Graduating without losing to them would be tremendous. I’d think we’d be the first class to do that in a long time.”

The Bruins, who won eight in a row from 1991 to 1998, want to maintain the new status quo. A UCLA player who never loses to USC is a Bruin who never pays for dinner in Westwood for the rest of his life.

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