For a group of seniors who have been through so much, the opportunity waiting for them Saturday at the Coliseum is a chance to put an emphatic stamp on the close of their USC careers.
It’s important to remember that this group came to USC well aware of the fact that the majority of their time would be spent under some form of NCAA sanction. What they didn’t know was that they would end up playing for four head coaches, including a pair of midseason coaching transitions. There have been some big wins, there have been some losses and there has been plenty of off-field drama.
Even with all that, these seniors have a chance to do something Saturday that hasn’t been done yet, and that is put USC in the Pac-12 title game. Somehow, even with three conference losses, the football stars aligned in such a way this week that the winner of the USC-UCLA game will advance to the championship game as the winner of the Pac-12 South. That means a victory in this traditional rivalry game would not only put an end to a three-year losing streak against the Bruins, it also would mean a chance to move on and play for a berth in the Rose Bowl.
How much would a victory in this game alter the narrative for Cody Kessler? There’s no doubt Kessler has earned his stripes with an impressive array of passing statistics, but in the legacy measurement of USC quarterbacks it takes a lot more than fancy numbers to get noticed. What better way could Kessler cap a three-year career as a starter than by delivering a signature win in this setting?
Will we see Tre Madden? The oft-injured tailback has been out of action in recent weeks with lingering knee issues but you know he would love to be on the field one more time to contribute in this game.
Perhaps no group of seniors could play a bigger role than those on the USC defensive line, as Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Greg Townsend and Cody Temple will look to put a lot of pressure on UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen.
It has been a bumpy road for these seniors, but you can be sure the Coliseum crowd will give them an appreciative ovation when they are introduced prior to the game.
Rivalry facts: It’s the 85th meeting; USC leads the series 44-31-7. UCLA has won the past three meetings, USC had won 11 of the previous 12 games prior to the recent UCLA streak. Both teams wear home jerseys and the winner gets the Victory Bell.
Dramatic finishes: Here are three USC-UCLA games that played out with high stakes
1967: USC won 21-20
O.J. Simpson broke loose for a dramatic 64-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that gave USC the win, the Rose Bowl berth and the national title.
1981: USC won 22-21
USC nose tackle George Achica blocked a field goal attempt on the final play of the game to preserve the win and knock the Bruins out of the Rose Bowl.
1987: USC won 17-13
Erik Affholter made a juggling 33-yard catch in the back of the end zone (disputed by many UCLA fans) to give USC the win and Rose Bowl berth.
When USC has the ball: UCLA’s defense has been hit hard this year with a well-documented string of injuries, which makes it the most vulnerable against the USC offensive attack. The Trojans have alternated in recent weeks between an increased commitment to the running game, led by Justin Davis and Ronald Jones, and times when Kessler is expected to carry things with his arm. One scenario to watch could be the overall health of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has been banged up with a series of injuries but is expected to play. It could be a fun matchup to watch between Smith-Schuster and UCLA senior corner Ishmael Adams.
When UCLA has the ball: One of the biggest issues could be the steadiness of the USC defense, particularly the secondary, coming off the performance against Oregon. Things will need to get settled quickly against a Bruins offense that is ranked in the top 25 nationally in total offense and passing offense. They have a talented true freshman quarterback in Rosen, a productive tailback in Paul Perkins, a pair of consistent receivers in Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte, along with an offensive line that doesn’t give up many sacks. In other words, it’s an offense that could take advantage of communication or coverage issues that showed themselves last week for the Trojans.