Emotion = good. Uncontrolled emotion = bad.
Passion = good. Unharnessed passion = bad.
These are the lessons UCLA coach Jim Mora is trying to get across to his team as they prepare to host the USC Trojans Saturday in a game that will determine the Pac-12 South Division championship. The implications in this game are significant. For starters, a spot in the conference title game with a shot at the Rose Bowl on the line. Then there's the rivalry factor, Los Angeles bragging rights for a year, the Victory Bell, recruiting implications etc. etc.
Make no mistake -- this is a huge game.
"I want them to be able to capture that emotion, contain that emotion and control that emotion and use it to our benefit," Mora said. "I don't want them to peak emotionally on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. I want them to focus on the process of preparation. Doing the things that helped us get to the point where we are 8-2 and got us to the point where we are able to play our cross-town rivals with a chance to play in the Pac-12 championship."
As you'd expect during a rivalry week, neither team is giving the other bulletin board fodder. Players and coaches are keeping it close the vest; understanding the importance of the rivalry, but also sticking to sports clichés 101.
"If you start to take a team more seriously than another, you're not doing justice to yourself or that game," said USC quarterback Matt Barkley. "We do the same preparation every week. You have to. There's obviously more hype around this game and these two schools given the history and the rivalry and a lot more attention in the media. But to us, you just keep doing things the same way."
This is the first time since 2001 that No. 17 UCLA (8-2, 5-2) enters the game with a higher ranking than No. 18 USC (7-3, 5-3) and the first time since 2000 that UCLA has more wins. USC, however has lost just once in the past 13 meetings (two wins were vacated per NCAA violation) and USC has won the past five.
But this is a different UCLA team. Revived by Mora and a coaching staff heavy on NFL experience, the Bruins outrank the Trojans in most offensive categories, including scoring offense, total offense, first downs, third-down conversion and red zone offense.
"Growing up and watching the Southern Cal and UCLA rivalry, you can make an argument that it's probably one of the biggest in the country," said UCLA redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, who is having an outstanding first season. "It's cool to take a step back and soak it all in if you can take yourself out of the situation. Being able to take part in it and to be able to lead this team in the biggest rivalry in the country is a great and amazing thing. It's going to be a great game and I'm looking forward to it. But you have to understand that it is another game, and you have to keep doing the things that got you to this point in the season."
Hundley was redshirting when UCLA fell 50-0 last season -- but many others were on the field. While it might be in the back of some players' minds, Mora said that's where it should stay.
"This is a completely different team from last year," Mora said. "It's a completely different coaching staff. We've got guys that are gone, guys who are here that weren't here last year. We're a different team. I think it would be naive to say guys who played in that game don't remember it. But I don't think they are licking their wounds a year later. But it would be naive to think they don't think about it. But I don't' think they dwell on it."
Across town, USC head coach Lane Kiffin said he feels fortunate that despite the disappointments of the season, his team is still in a position to win the Pac-12.
"We're not pleased," he said. "We screwed a couple of games up, obviously. None of us wanted to be where our win-loss record is. But at the same time, you want to be alive. And right now a lot of people in the country aren't playing for the ability to win their conference. We are, fortunately. We're in a one-game playoff for the South. And if we win that, hopefully, we've got one more game for the conference championship. From that perspective, it's a good place to be with a lot to play for."