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O/NSO: UCLA edition

By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

The Obvious: If the No. 15 USC Trojans (7-3 overall, 6-2 Pac-12 South) have any hope of getting a shot at a Pac-12 South Division title repeat, they must defeat their crosstown rivals, the UCLA Bruins (4-6 overall, 2-5 Pac-12 South), this Saturday night at the Rose Bowl (7:30 p.m. PT/ESPN) in the 86th meeting of this historic Los Angeles gridiron conflict.

The Not So Obvious: But first, a dose of Pac-12 South Division reality. It has come to this: If No. 12 Colorado (8-2 overall, 6-1 Pac-12 South) and No. 11 Utah (8-2 overall, 5-2 Pac-12 South) both win on Saturday, the Trojans are eliminated from Pac-12 South Division title contention. However, if both the Buffaloes and Utes lose, the Trojans can clinch a Pac-12 South championship by defeating UCLA. Now the Saturday specifics. Utah hosts Oregon (3-7 overall, 1-6 Pac-12 North) at 11 a.m. PT (P12N), while Pac-12 South leader Colorado entertains No. 20 and Pac-12 Division North leader Washington State (8-2 overall, 7-0 Pac-12 North) at 12:30 p.m. PT (FOX). So, before the Trojans kick off with the Bruins in the Arroyo Seco evening, a lot could be already determined even before the first tackle is administered.

The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 10-point favorite over UCLA, a team that has defeated the Men of Troy the past 3 of 4 games played.

The Not So Obvious: Yeah, yeah, yeah… the O/NSO knows to pay no attention to the odds because no matter how good or bad each team is, there’s enough history to know that anything can happen, and we are periodically reminded of it. UCLA has their back-up quarterback upset legends in Norman Dow (1966) and John Barnes (1992) while the Trojans have their John Fox Cinderella story (1999). This season, UCLA is going with former walk-on Mike Fafaul, a senior, who replaced injured former starter Josh Rosen (shoulder). And don’t forget that in 2014, the last time the Trojans visited the Rose Bowl, the Bruins dominated the Trojans 38-20. Simply put, if UCLA can pull the upset in Pasadena, it knocks the Trojans out of the Pac-12 South Division running and keeps the Bruins slim bowl hopes alive. As for history, the Men of Troy lead the series 45-31-7, not including Troy’s 2004 and 2005 victories that were vacated due to NCAA penalties.

The Obvious: Saturday night’s USC/UCLA game will be nationally televised live on ESPN (7:30 p.m. PT).

The Not So Obvious: The ESPN broadcasters for Saturday’s kickoff will be Steve Levy (play-by-play), Brian Griese (analysis), and Todd McShay (sidelines).

The Obvious: Saturday’s Trojans radio broadcast of the USC/ UCLA game will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM at 7:30 p.m. (PT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).

The Trojans ESPNLA 710 pregame (3:30 p.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show on Saturday will feature Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, and WeAreSC contributor Jeremy Hogue.

The Not So Obvious: The UCLA broadcast can be heard on am1150 with Josh Lewin (play-by-play) and Matt Stevens (analyst) and Wayne Cook (sidelines).

Saturday night’s crosstown rivalry game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (online channel 972) and on the Tuneln Radio app.

The Obvious: The Pasadena weather on Saturday calls for sunny with a high of 72, 26 percent humidity, and a low of 53 degrees.

The Not So Obvious: We’ll see whether the Trojans are still on Cloud 9 thinking about last Saturday’s upset victory at Washington or have they come down to reality, knowing they have to win on Saturday for a multitude of reasons: like a possible Pac-12 South title, beating their archrivals two straight seasons, and, of course, recruiting. UCLA will be bringing to the game high profile recruits that both schools covet. There is even more than a lot on the line. For the Trojans, it’s the possibility of playing in a high-profile bowl game, and for UCLA, they need to sweep their finals two games to become bowl eligible.

Offensively, we’ll see whether the Trojans can continue with impressive assaults of opposition defenses. Pro scouts are taking notice of Trojans redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and his athletic ability to move around the pocket, deliver pinpoint passes, read his progressions, and his uncanny ability to sidestep a pass rush. We’ll see whether the talented UCLA defense will provide stiff resistance, both against the rush and the pass. In senior DL Takkarist McKinley, the Bruins have a future pro, who leads the nation in tackles for loss and is second in sacks. And don’t forget former Trojans DL commit, junior Eddie Vanderdoes, who is back this season after ACL surgery in 2015. The Bruins have some additional run stoppers inside. As for the Trojans, UCLA will have its hands full with the Trojans running attack led by sophomore Ronald Jones ll (7 rushing TDs in the past 4 games) and senior grinder Justin Davis. RoJo, in particular, is a major threat to the Bruins’ defense with his speed. We’ll see whether the Trojans rushing attack can continue to be effective, which opens up the passing game. The Trojans are getting an even more balanced with the ball being spread around to different receivers like All-Pac-12 junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, senior Darreus Rogers, sophomore Deontay Burnett, and emerging freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. We’ll find out whether these Trojans receivers can outshine a gifted UCLA secondary. The Bruins secondary, which ranks sixth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and 14th in interceptions, may be the second best secondary unit the Trojans have faced outside of Alabama. We’ll see whether the Trojans fleet receivers can outplay a Bruins’ defensive backfield led by junior safety Jaleel Wadood and senior safety Randall Goforth. Of course, we see whether the Trojans offensive line can produce another stellar performance. Neil Callaway’s improving offensive line, led by senior All-Pac-12 right tackle Zach Banner and fellow senior left tackle Chad Wheeler, appear to be now physically dominating their opponents, yet the UCLA D-line and linebackers, led by senior LBs Jayon Brown and junior Kenny Young, may be part of the best defensive front the Trojans have faced since the Utah.

Defensively, we’ll find out whether Clancy Pendergast’s Trojans defense can again stuff the run and confine the pass. In the case of the UCLA offense, the Bruins offensive line has not been the physical and dominant force it has been in the past. In fact, the UCLA running game has been nearly non-existent in 2015, in spite of talented running backs such as sophomores Soso Jamabo and Bolo Olorunfunmi. The Bruins, of course, lost heralded starting sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen to season-ending shoulder surgery, which brought forth former walk-on Mike Fafaul (108-of-198, 54.5%, 1245 yds., 9 TD, 10 int. in 2016), a senior, who has started the past four games in place of Rosen. We’ll see whether the Trojans front seven can continue to have their way with a vulnerable UCLA O-line. The Men of Troy have been getting great efforts by senior LB Michael Hutchings, sophomore OLB Porter Gustin, sophomore ILB Cameron Smith and junior OLB Uchenna Nwosu, sophomore DT Rasheem Green, senior NT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and junior CB-WR-RET Adoree’ Jackson. All of these cardinal and gold performers have played key roles in the Trojans defensive resurgence.

In terms of specials teams, Trojans placekicker junior lefty Matt Boermeester (11-of-16 FG, 39-of-39 PAT in 2016) has been a major weapon for the Trojans. We’ll see whether he can handle pressure of the upcoming rivalry games, starting with the Bruins. Some have complained that Trojans sophomore punter Chris Tilbey (37.7 avg.) has been disappointing in terms of distance. However, Tilbey has been instructed at times that it’s not how far the ball goes, but how much yardage on the return.

The bottom line to Saturday’s game is whether the Trojans can play to their potential based on the past six games and maintain their defensive dominance. Everything points to a potential Trojans rout, but if it isn’t, after all, it’s still USC and UCLA.

The Obvious: Last Saturday, the Bruins snapped a four-game losing streak by defeating Oregon State 38-24 in the Rose Bowl.

The Not So Obvious: Beware Trojans, UCLA’s six losses have been by an average of just 7.0 points.

The Obvious: It’s a given that the USC/UCLA will be a physical war.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the physical nature of the game, Trojans senior tailback Justin Davis says, “This is a rivalry game – SC versus UCLA. It always going to be like that (physical). No matter where both teams are, what point they are in the season, and what their records are, it’s always going to be a game where it comes down to the last quarter. So, we know it’s a rivalry game and they’re going to come out and emotions are going to be high and it’s going to be a dirty, nasty game with a lot of trash talking back and forth. That’s why we love rivalries and I can’t wait for the challenge. It’ll be great.”

The Obvious: The 2016 Trojans offense is averaging 31.4 points per game while the UCLA defense is allowing 25.8 points per outing.

The Not So Obvious: The 2016 UCLA offense is averaging 27.5 points per game while the Trojans defense is allowing 22.5 points per game.

The Obvious: Tee Martin is the Trojans first-year offensive coordinator.

The Not So Obvious: Asked about the UCLA defense, Martin said, “They’re really good, really good. Statistically, talent, speed and pretty much everything you want in a defense. They have size to stop the run. They can cover. They can pressure with their pass rushers. We’re going to have to go out and play well to win the game. I think all around their very good. I went back and watched the Texas A&M game and the rest of their games, and their defense made it tough throughout the season. It’s hard to move the ball.”

The Obvious: The Trojans quarterback is redshirt freshman Sam Darnold (6-4, 225), who was a highly decorated quarterback coming out of San Clemente (Calif.) High and is a former varsity basketball league MVP and second team All-CIF.

The Not So Obvious: UCLA quarterback is redshirt senior Mike Fafaul (6-2, 205), a former walk-on from Cockeysville, Maryland and Loyola Blakefield High where he was recruited by Princeton, Cornell, New Hampshire, VMI, West Virginia and Maryland.

The Obvious: The strength of the UCLA defense is a very talented secondary.

The Not So Obvious: The Bruins rank sixth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and 14th in interceptions.

The Obvious: Much of the attention of the UCLA defense will be focused on Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the strength of this UCLA defense, Darnold said this week, “Their pass rush is great and their secondary is great. They’re a good football team. You can’t take away anything from this UCLA football team and what those guys have built over there. They’re a great team and we’re going to prepare like we would for any other game.”

The Obvious: UCLA comes into Saturday’s game unranked.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans have won 65% of the time against unranked UCLA teams. Be aware, Trojans: this is the 10th anniversary of unranked UCLA’s 13-9 upset win that knocked the No. 2 Trojans out of a third consecutive BCS Championship Game.

The Obvious: The USC/UCLA game brings together players from both teams that have known each other from as far back as Pop Warner Football, and this is especially true for Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster when it comes to the UCLA secondary.

The Not So Obvious: Smith-Schuster says, “I know Jaleel Wadood, who is pretty cool, I know (Randall) Goforth, and two other guys that I have honestly played against them, but I really don’t know them on a personal level. We don’t really talk smack. I let my shoulder pads and helmet talk.”

The Obvious: Saturday’s game will be a rare crosstown rivalry game at night.

The Not So Obvious: It’s just the 11th night game in the series (and the 7:30 p.m. kickoff ties for the series’ second latest start).

The Obvious: The head football coach for UCLA is Jim Mora Jr. is now in his fifth season as the Bruins’ head coach.

The Not So Obvious: Mora’s father, Jim Mora Sr., received a master’s degree from USC, his mother graduated from USC, and one of Jim Jr.’s daughters attends USC.

The Obvious: Former Trojans head coach Pete Carroll was known for his love of college tradition and creating new traditions, as well.

The Not So Obvious: It was Carroll that pushed the idea of both teams wearing their classic home uniforms like they once did when they played each other at the Coliseum. When both teams returned to wearing their home jerseys back in 2008, it was the first time since 1982.

The Obvious: UCLA’s first-year offensive coordinator is former Trojans fullback and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.

The Not So Obvious: Kennedy, who also played some linebacker for Troy, participated for the Cardinal and Gold from 1982 to 1985, and Polamalu also has coached two separate times at Troy.

The Obvious: And finally, the winner of the USC/UCLA game receives the “Victory Bell” in their school colors for an entire year.

The Not So Obvious: The Victory Bell is a 295-pound bell off a freight locomotive. Originally given to UCLA in 1939 as a gift from the UCLA Alumni Association, several USC students took the bell in 1941 and hid it in a variety of locations for more than a year. A controversy ensued and school administrators had to intercede. In 1942, the bell resurfaced and, by agreement, became the trophy given to the game’s winner. However, tradition calls for the Victory Bell to spend most of the year in storage…or, rather appropriately, in hiding.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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