The UCLA-USC game in itself is enough to get blood boiling on both sides of the rivalry, but when you add in some tangible consequences, it goes off the charts.
UCLA can wrap up the Pac-12 South division title and earn a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 title game with a win.
And this has nothing to do with the NCAA sanctions that prevent USC from playing in the postseason because if UCLA wins, the teams would be tied at 6-3 in the conference and UCLA would have the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“If we were to be successful, there would be no asterisk,” coach Rick Neuheisel said. “It would be legitimate and we can ask for nothing more than that kind of opportunity.”
UCLA hasn’t had much to play for against USC since Neuheisel took over as coach of the Bruins, but this week is different and it adds another element to the game.
“We all understand how big this game is,” running back Johnathan Franklin said. “But we can’t let it be a distraction. We just have to go out there and play our best game.”
The Bruins will need a complete game to knock off USC and that’s something the Bruins have had trouble putting together most of the season. They’ve alternately looked bad and good all season, yet seem to be rounding into form down the stretch with three wins in their last four games.
Here are three strengths and three weaknesses that may play a role in whether or not the Bruins will indeed claim the South division title and a spot in the Pac-12 title game:
Offensive balance: UCLA makes its living running the ball with Johnathan Franklin, Derrick Coleman and quarterback Kevin Prince leading the way for a rushing attack that averages 199.55 yards per game. With three viable threats, the Bruins are able to keep opponents guessing. And this season, they have added a downfield passing dimension that has opened up things on the ground. UCLA is passing for only 194.27 yards per game, which is 11th in the Pac-12, but the Bruins are averaging 14.84 yards per completion -- tops in the conference.
Resiliency: The Bruins have shown an innate ability to pick themselves off the mat time after time this season and have followed some of their worst showings with some of their best. Every time UCLA has lost this season, the Bruins followed up with a win. That never-say-die attitude has helped in games as well as the Bruins have two fourth-quarter comeback victories and have outscored opponents, 91-57, in the fourth quarter.
Jeff Locke: UCLA’s punter has been an invaluable field position weapon this season, being called upon to bail UCLA out of many different situations. Whether the Bruins need a 50 yard punt with a lot of hang time or a 30-yard punt to pin the opponent inside the five, Locke has delivered more times than not. He’s averaged 43.7 yards per punt which is 19th in the nation, has nine punts of 50 yards or more and has put 18 inside the 20 with only three touchbacks.
Run defense: The Bruins have had all sorts of trouble stopping the run this season, having given up 200 yards rushing or more in six games. Whether it be missed tackles, lack of gap control or poor schemes, opponents are averaging 180.82 yards per game on the ground, which is 10th in the Pac-12. They give up 4.9 yards per carry, which is 11th in the conference and No. 100 in the nation.
Pressuring the quarterback: The Bruins have not been able to get to opposing quarterbacks very often and have only 12 sacks for the season, which is the ninth fewest in the nation. They have only three games with more than one sack and have the same number of games without a sack. The lack of pressure has been particularly troublesome on third down as opponents have converted 49 percent of third downs against the Bruins—No. 112 in the nation.
Discipline: Penalties have been a season-long issue for the Bruins and it seems to be getting worse in the final stretch of the season. UCLA has been penalized 79 times for 716 yards this season, ranking No. 107 in penalty yards and No. 97 in total penalties. They have 21 penalties for 193 yards in the last two games and it’s not just one thing. Offsides, false starts, pass interference, holding and personal fouls have all cropped up on a regular basis.