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Opponent Preview: UCLA Bruins

The USC Trojans (7-4, 6-2) welcome the UCLA Bruins (4-6, 4-3) to the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon in a game that means plenty to the Trojans, as they are looking to keep pace with Utah in the Pac-12 South, as well as take back the Victory Bell after UCLA ran all over USC last year.

UCLA offense vs USC defense

#1 Dorian Thompson-Robinson (6-1, 197)

Running back
#27 Joshua Kelley (5-11, 219)
#10 Demetric Felton (5-9, 185)

Wide receiver
#2 Kyle Philips (5-11, 181)
#15 Jaylen Erwin (5-11, 177)
#23 Chase Cota (6-4, 198)

Tight end
#86 Devin Asiasi (6-3, 260)

Offensive line
LT #74 Sean Rhyan (6-4, 323)
LG #62 Duke Clemens (6-3, 275)
C #75 Boss Tagaloa (6-1, 312)
RG #76 Christaphany Murray (6-2, 298)
RT #73 Jake Burton (6-6, 312)

UCLA’s offense works with a physical run game and misdirection that enables the Bruins to take advantage of defensive lapses in assignments. Everything starts with running back Joshua Kelley, who ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing this season, gaining 104.3 yards per game. He has 10 touchdowns and has been on a roll lately. He’s rushed for at least 125 yards in four of UCLA’s past six games, including 176 yards and a 9.8 yard-per-carry average against Stanford, and four rushing touchdowns against Arizona State. The Utah defensive line was able to keep him to 78 yards, but he still averaged more than four yards per carry against the Utes. Kelley set the single-game record for rushing yards in a USC-UCLA game last season, and the Trojans are abundantly aware of what he can do with the ball in his hands. This game, on this side of the ball, will be all about keeping Kelley in check.

The Bruins can also go to Demetric Felton in both the running and passing game. He’s one of the fastest players on the UCLA roster and has a 75-yard rushing touchdown, a 94-yard receiving touchdown, and a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown this season.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson can be a dynamic playmaker, and he can also be a liability with some of his decision making and ball security issues. He’s completed just 59.9% of his passes for 2,056 yards and 17 touchdowns, but has thrown 10 interceptions and has fumbled several times inside the red zone. He has the ability to run, and has at least seven rushing attempts (sacks included) in every game he’s played in this season. He also has at least a 15-yard rush in each of his past six games.

UCLA will overload the line of scrimmage with offensive linemen and tight ends, and will shift pre-snap to go to unbalanced lines and force a defense to respond and then either hold up at the point of attack or read and react quickly to a play going away from the mass of bodies. USC hasn’t always been sound in either of those areas this season–holding up against a power run game or staying with assignments and preventing plays from getting to the perimeter—and this will be a significant test.

UCLA has gotten tight end Devin Asiasi more involved this season. The big tight end has at least two receptions in the past nine games and is coming off his best statistical performance of the year against Utah, with five receptions for 72 yards. Wide receiver Kyle Philips leads the team with 43 receptions for 490 yards and five touchdowns. He’s a solid option, but not one of the more dominant receivers in the Pac-12, and the USC secondary will likely be tested more by having to rally up to stop Felton and Asiasi in the passing game.

The offensive line for UCLA starts two true freshmen on the left side in tackle Sean Rhyan and guard Duke Clemens. While the scheme is there to potentially give USC some fits, this is not a line that should dominate the USC front seven like it did last season. UCLA averages just 3.8 yards per rush this season and has allowed 28 sacks this season. While Kelley has been terrific again, UCLA ranks just fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, at 158.7 yards per game, and 11th in the conference in passing, at 234 yards per game. The 2.8 sacks allowed per game ranks 10th in the Pac-12 and 109th overall, and UCLA has been dreadful in the red zone, ranking dead last in the Pac-12 and 102nd overall.

UCLA defense vs USC offense

Defensive line
DT #50 Tyler Manoa (6-4, 303)
NT #91 Otito Ogbonnia (6-4, 336)
DE #92 Osa Odighizuwa (6-2, 279)

OLB #2 Josh Woods (6-2, 234)
ILB #52 Lokeni Toailoa (6-1, 256)
ILB #14 Krys Barnes (6-1, 235)
OLB #11 Keisean Lucier-South (6-4, 235

Defensive back
CB Darnay Holmes (5-10, 198)
S #4 Stephan Blaylock (5-10, 192)
S #20 Elisha Guidry (5-11, 185)
CB #3 Rayshad Williams (6-2, 183)

There are a lot of similiarities between the UCLA defense and the Cal defense, starting with their use of a base 3-4 look. Like Cal, UCLA has a very good linebacker in the middle of the defense—though any Pac-12 linebacker is a step down from Cal’s Evan Weaver—and a lot of individually talented defensive backs who have combined to give up a bunch of passing yards this season.

UCLA ranks 10th in the conference and 123rd overall in passing defense, allowing 298.4 yards per game, and that’s a number USC absolutely understands and will look to exploit. UCLA’s rush defense hasn’t been great, but it’s been better than the Trojans’, as the Bruins rank 6th in the conference and the Trojans 10th. It’s not just that UCLA allows yards through the air, the Bruins haven’t been able to make plays when teams turn to the pass game, as UCLA ranks 128th in the county in pass efficiency defense and the Bruins have just four interceptions (two by linebackers) and 26 pass deflections.

The defensive front is formidable in terms of size, and that, combined with some exotic pressures that UCLA can and will draw up with their linebackers and secondary, could be the biggest challenge for the USC offensive line. Linebacker Josh Woods and defensive end Osa Odighizuwa are tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks, but linebackers Krys Barnes (3), Leni Toailoa (2.5) and Keisean Lucier-South (2.5) have chipped in while rushing the passer as well.

Safety Stephan Blaylock leads the team in tackles with 67, while Darnay Holmes is likely the most talented defensive back on the roster, and leads the secondary with four pass breakups.

Ultimately, this is likely another game where USC’s offense will go as far as the pass protection of the offensive line and running backs can take it. If quarterback Kedon Slovis and the wide receivers are given time to operate, they should be able to move the ball against the Bruins. Getting the running game going with Kenan Christon and Stephen Carr, plus the potential return of Vavae Malepeai, would be big, but the advantage for USC there isn’t close to the one they should enjoy out on the perimeter.

Special Teams

#17 JJ Molson (6-1, 197)

#89 Wade Lees (6-0, 193)

Kick returner
#10 Demetric Felton (5-9, 185)

Punt returner
#2 Kyle Philips (5-11, 181)

UCLA has had some explosive plays in the return game this season, as Demetric Felton returned a kickoff and Kyle Philips returned a punt for touchdowns against Washington State. Philips is averaging 22.5 yards per return, so it would be shocking if USC allowed him to get his hands on a punt on Saturday. That average ranks second overall and first in the Pac-12. Felton is one of the best kickoff returners in the nation, averaging 28.8 yards per return. The Trojans will need to find a way to keep him contained this weekend, as USC is last in the Pac-12 and one of the worst teams in the nation when it comes to kickoff coverage, as their 28.7 yard average ranks 128th overall.

Kicker JJ Molson hasn’t been very reliable this season, as he’s just 7-for-12, and has two misses from inside 40 yards. He does have a strong leg though, as he’s made one from 49 and been asked to try one from 50. Punter Wade Lees, like USC’s Ben Griffiths, is an older Australian import who had a career in Australian rules football before making his way into college football. He’s averaging 42.7 yards per punt this year and has forced 19 fair catches on 39 punts. Opponents have had some success in the return game, however, as UCLA allowed 13.8 yards per return and has surrendered a 45-yard touchdown return.

Erik McKinney
Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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