Who do you think will win tonight’s USC vs. UCLA college football game?
No. 12 UCLA and No. 8 USC will face off Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
After a weekend full of surprises, Los Angeles Times college football writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen answer key questions about the two teams.
How will UCLA respond to losing to Arizona?
Bolch: The Bruins didn’t need extra motivation in the rivalry game but found it in going splat against Arizona on their home field. That could provide additional catharsis in beating the Trojans to get back into strong contention for the Pac-12 title game. Dorian Thompson-Robinson also is going to want to replicate his superhuman performance against USC from last season at the Rose Bowl in what might be his final home game (unless the Bruins return on Jan. 2). UCLA safety Mo Osling III provided a prediction, not to mention bulletin-board fodder, when he said “we know we’re gonna replicate it” in response to a question about the possibility of repeating UCLA’s 62-33 beatdown of the Trojans at home last season.
McCollough: Ben’s right. The loss to Arizona is only going to make UCLA more resolute and focused on transferring its pain to its bitter rival. The USC game just became even bigger for the Bruins. If they lose, all momentum built over the first 10 weeks of the season will have been erased, and the questions about Chip Kelly’s ability to get UCLA over the hump will start anew. Luckily, Kelly’s “win the day” mantra is meant for times like this. The Bruins should be well-practiced in not lingering in the past and play their best game of the season Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
Nguyen: I don’t expect the Bruins to, as Chip Kelly says, let Arizona beat them twice by succumbing to a hangover. With an experienced team like this, UCLA should know better.
Kartje: UCLA may have squandered its shot at the playoff, but there’s still plenty to play for. And what better way to redeem itself than by delivering the same devastating blow to their rival’s playoff hopes?
What does the loss of Travis Dye mean for USC?
Kartje: The scene of USC’s sideline emptying to surround their lead running back spoke volumes about what Dye has meant to this team all season. On a team full of transfers, he was the glue that bound USC’s locker room together. He also happened to be one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, a prolific all-purpose weapon who always found a way to add an extra yard or two to every touch. Now it’s up to Austin Jones and Raleek Brown to fill that void, and while both are talented backs in their own right, they aren’t nearly as well-rounded as Dye. If UCLA decides to dictate the pace of this game by pounding away on the ground — like it should — USC is going to struggle to match its rival’s rushing attack. That inevitably means more pressure on the shoulders of quarterback Caleb Williams.
McCollough: The image of the entire USC football program gathering around the fallen Travis Dye will last forever. The young man has had a bigger impact in his short time with the Trojans than everyone not named Caleb Williams. He’s a heart-and-soul kind of guy, and his grit is just the kind of thing that can help a team beat its rival. He will be missed, but USC has plenty of talent ready to step in with Stanford transfer Austin Jones and freshman Raleek Brown. Jones was one of the top recruits in the country in his class and has been waiting for his chance to shine. Jones can run the ball just fine, but Dye’s intangibles — like being one of the best pass-protecting backs in the country — will be missed.
Bolch: Dye’s absence will mean not just a change in personnel, but likely one in scheme as well. The Trojans will probably throw the ball more — and that could be an advantage for them given the way UCLA’s secondary has struggled against quarterbacks far less gifted than Williams.
Nguyen: It’s not only Dye’s ability to run the ball that set him apart in USC’s offense, but it’s his pass protection that the Trojans will miss most. As he put it this year: “No blocky, no rocky.” It’ll be hard for Jones and especially Brown, a freshman, to replicate that kind of physicality to help keep Caleb Williams upright against an opportunistic UCLA defense that includes the Murphy twins and Laiatu Latu. The Trojans gave up three sacks to Colorado, a team that had just six entering the game.
What is the biggest positional advantage for each team entering the game?
Bolch: Chip Kelly really only needs to call three plays — Zach Charbonnet, inside zone; Charbonnet, up the middle; Charbonnet, outsize zone — to win the game given how many yards UCLA’s running back should be able to generate against USC’s defense. As for the Trojans, after watching footage of UCLA’s secondary, Caleb Williams hasn’t licked his lips this much since they were parched and cracked during the dead of an Oklahoma winter.
Kartje: For USC, Saturday starts and ends with its star quarterback. Caleb Williams has been stellar all season, throwing 31 touchdowns to just two interceptions as he’s soared toward Heisman Trophy contention. His ability to navigate the pocket and escape pressure is unlike any other quarterback in the Pac-12 — and quite possibly the nation. Expect USC’s offense to come out swinging from the start in order to get Williams in a rhythm. UCLA has the pass rush to make him uncomfortable, but if he has time to work, Williams could make mince meat of the Bruins’ subpar secondary. For UCLA, the formula couldn’t be more simple: Feed Zach Charbonnet. Tire out USC’s defense. Rinse. Repeat. USC’s front has been better against the run in recent weeks, but it hasn’t faced a back like Charbonnet all season. He should find plenty of room to run, especially if USC is once again without injured inside linebacker Eric Gentry.
McCollough: USC’s wide receivers should have a field day against a UCLA pass defense that just let Arizona’s group flaunt its talents all over the Rose Bowl. The Trojans should get Mario Williams back this week, joining Jordan Addison, and their absences have built a ton of confidence in the Trojans’ depth at that position. UCLA should feel great about its ability to run the ball with Zach Charbonnet on USC’s defensive front. That will be the best way to keep Caleb Williams off the field, too.
Nguyen: No matter what team, I would be very excited to be an offensive player on Saturday. I’m anticipating a shootout with two high-powered offenses against defenses that have struggled. UCLA’s advantage in the run game that Brady mentioned gets even bigger with Travis Dye out while Caleb Williams should be salivating over a UCLA secondary that may be missing starting corner Devin Kirkwood, who was out against Arizona.
Who or what will be the X-factor in the game?
Kartje: I’ve been calling for five-star USC freshman Raleek Brown to burst onto the scene all season, so what better time for a breakout than the crosstown rivalry? Since the moment Brown stepped onto USC’s campus, his teammates have predicted his ascent to stardom. The freshman has two touchdowns in the last three weeks, and with Dye out, I expect Riley to pull out all the stops to spark his rushing attack. Timely turnovers could also play a major part on Saturday. USC currently boasts one of the best turnover margins in recent college football history. If UCLA can flip that script, it could make the difference.
McCollough: The Trojans will need some well-timed big plays from their defense to stall drives or flip momentum with turnovers as they have all season. I like safety Calen Bullock to make one of those plays Saturday. For UCLA, the X-factor will be Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s ability to scramble out of trouble and run for big chunks of yardage.
Bolch: UCLA’s Kazmeir Allen could be a bit overlooked in the scouting report given he did not play last weekend because of an unspecified injury. He returned to practice Monday and displayed his usual blazing speed. His ability to break a kickoff return 100 yards and score long touchdowns on short passes should make him a constant worry for the Trojans.
Nguyen: With offenses this potent, it’ll come down to which team can get a timely stop. For USC, that often comes from Tuli Tuipulotu, the nation’s leader in sacks. The Bruins need to match USC’s pass rush and make Caleb Williams uncomfortable.
Who will call better plays, Chip Kelly or Lincoln Riley?
Bolch: With two of college football’s top offensive minds going against two of the weakest defenses in the Pac-12, Lawler’s Law — first team to 100 points wins — might be in effect. All kidding aside, you can expect some unique formations and plays from both coaches while giving a clinic in the art of the un-scouted look. Let’s not forget that Riley has already gone 2-0 against Kelly, whipping the Bruins by a combined score of 97-35 while coaching at Oklahoma. Here’s betting that Kelly hasn’t forgotten about those losses that came against far weaker UCLA teams. Given that he now has the best running back in the rivalry game in Zach Charbonnet, Kelly should find a way to out-scheme his Trojans counterpart.
Kartje: I’ve seen enough from Riley this season to know he’ll have something up his sleeve we haven’t seen. That’s where Raleek Brown could come in as a potential X-factor. Dye’s absence will certainly affect those plans, but it also adds a layer of unpredictability to USC’s offense. Riley has already outsmarted Kelly before, and this time, I anticipate he’ll have the entire kitchen sink ready to throw at him.
McCollough: The last few weeks, I’ve had this feeling that Lincoln Riley is keeping a lid on a whole array of plays that he expects can get the Trojans over the top in their two huge rivalry games to finish the season. USC’s players and manageable schedule were able to get Riley to this game at 9-1 with a playoff berth still in reach, and his intellect and guile as a play caller will shine through in key situations Saturday.
Nguyen: In the spirit of keeping some secrets wrapped up for the rivalry game, I was surprised Riley used the fake extra-point play in a blowout against Colorado instead of saving backup punter Will Rose (and his celebratory backflip) for UCLA. If he was willing to play that card against the Buffaloes, I’m sure Riley has an even bigger surprise in his play sheet this week.
Who is going to win and why?
McCollough: I picked USC to start 9-1 and finish 9-3, and I picked the Bruins to beat USC and lose to Cal the next week, also finishing 9-3. This is going to be a great game, and for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick with my original intuition. UCLA finds a way.
Nguyen: Backed into a corner after last week’s loss, I expect UCLA will punch its way back into the Pac-12 race in this must-win situation. The Bruins are going to be playing with desperation the same way Utah was when the Utes knocked off USC in Salt Lake City.
Bolch: Thompson-Robinson isn’t going to end his college career with two consecutive home losses. He’ll hurdle Traveler if he has to on the way to engineering another storybook UCLA victory in the rivalry. Bruins win, 52-48.
Kartje: This is sure to invoke the wrath of USC fans everywhere, but looks like we’re all in agreement. I just don’t see the Trojans’ defense slowing down Zach Charbonnet or forcing enough mistakes out of Dorian Thompson-Robinson. These two teams are about as evenly matched as they come, and the first team to force the other to punt a second time may very well win it. Give me UCLA in a barnburner, 48-42.