Saturday, December 4, 2010
USC-UCLA: What to watch
By Mark Saxon and Peter Yoon
The running game will be key and leading the charge for their respective teams is Johnathan Franklin and Marc Tyler.
• Can USC run the ball? The most maddening aspect of last week’s loss to Notre Dame for the USC coaches was the inability to run. USC ball carriers had 74 yards on 29 carries, a paltry 2.6 yards per carry. The UCLA rushing defense is No. 103 in the nation, so this game could present opportunities, but are Marc Tyler, Allen Bradford and Dillon Baxter playing well enough to seize them? Because the offense relies on so much play action, establishing a power run game is the key.
• What can the Trojans expect from Matt Barkley? The USC sophomore quarterback was in a bit of a funk – along with the rest of the offense – when he badly sprained his left ankle against Oregon State. While he gradually improved throughout the week and should start, he could be limited by the pain. Barkley admitted he wasn’t as comfortable throwing on the run and he’ll be wearing a bulky brace. The UCLA defenders also could target his ankle by diving for low hits. This game tends to get nasty.
• What to make of the USC defense? Defensive guru Monte Kiffin says his guys have gradually picked up his schemes, “even if it may not look like it sometimes.” This might be the game for the defense to shed its youthful ways and put on its big-boy shoulder pads. As unpredictable as the offense has been and, with uncertainty at quarterback, the Trojans might have to rely on their defense. Is it finally ready? Mixed signals from the Notre Dame game. They were dominant at times, but backtracked at the end of both halves.
• How do you assess USC’s coaching? Everything was going so well for Lane Kiffin and his staff just a few weeks ago, after a nice win at Arizona. Since then, the Trojans have been blown out at Oregon State and had their eight-game winning streak to Notre Dame snapped. To lose this game would send Kiffin’s program into the off-season with a cloud over its head. It also might make next season a pivotal one to convince athletic director Pat Haden that he’s the man for the job.
• Will the Trojans’ seniors carry the day? Kiffin hinted that he’ll play his seniors in this game, but not for sentimental reasons. He thinks they have an edge since they’ll tend to play with more urgency. For some of them, it could be the last game they play. The team only has three offensive starters and three defensive starters who are seniors. Keep an eye on Bradford, Stanley Havili and Kristofer O’Dowd on offense and Malcolm Smith, Michael Morgan and Shareece Wright on defense. It will mean a lot to them.
• Can Richard Brehaut repeat? Brehaut had a breakout passing game last week, throwing for 321 yards and three touchdowns while setting school records for completions (33) and attempts (56). Unfortunately, most of that all came because UCLA trailed for three quarters and was trying to play catch up, but it gives the Bruins some semblance of hope that their passing attack, ranked No. 116 in the country, can provide some balance. Facing a 112th-ranked Trojans pass defense should help.
• Will UCLA put up a fight on defense? The Bruins struggled defensively last week, giving up 55 points and a season-high 595 total yards against Arizona State. UCLA has given up more than 580 total yards in three of its last five games—allowing opposing quarterbacks to pass for more than 300 yards in each of those three games. But the Bruins have also given up 200 yards rushing or more seven times this season and 103rd in the nation in rushing defense.
• Which UCLA running game will show up? There is no question that UCLA needs to be able to run the ball to win. In their four victories, the Bruins have averaged 294.3 yards rushing; in their seven losses, they’ve averaged 114.6. Johnathan Franklin is averaging 148 yards rushing in UCLA victories and has at least 100 yards in all four. In UCLA’s losses, Franklin is averaging 60.9 yards and has no more than 73 yards in any of those games. USC is average against the run and UCLA must try to establish the ground attack early.
• Can the Bruins channel their emotions? The ending to last year’s game, when USC threw a 48-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds to play despite holding a 21-7 lead at the time, has burned within the Bruins for a year now. They say they haven’t forgotten, but can ill afford to make revenge the focal point of the game. If they get too caught up in the emotion, they risk playing out of control and making mistakes.
• Can the UCLA coordinators save their jobs? It’s no secret that the season has been a major disappointment on both sides of the ball, so naturally there will be rumors that offensive coordinator Norm Chow and defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough are on the hot seat. Victories over USC tend to warm fuzzy feelings so a solid defensive performance or an offensive onslaught against the Trojans could complicate the evaluation of those coaches.