Trojans ready for crosstown showdown

first_imgMore than bragging rights will be on the line this Saturday afternoon when the USC football team heads to the Rose Bowl to face archrival UCLA. Both the No. 24 Trojans (7-3, 6-2 Pac-12) and the No. 11 Bruins (8-2, 5-2) still have a shot to win the Pac-12 South, but a loss spells trouble for either team’s hopes of reaching the conference championship game. USC head coach Steve Sarkisian is aware of the emotions that surround such a heated rivalry but believes his team is focused on the task at hand.Top notch · Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler is second in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, while UCLA’s gunslinger, Brett Hundley, is third. Kessler has thrown 29 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season. – Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan “We’re focusing on what we can control,” Sarkisian said. “Emotions are tricky, especially in rivalry games. Sometimes you like that emotion in the air, but sometimes it can get the better of you. There’s a fine line and a balance in there.”For redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler, the game has a special meaning.“You’re remembered for the games you play [against] UCLA and Notre Dame,” Kessler told Trojans Live. “Unfortunately, last year we lost to both of them. So definitely this year I got a little chip on my shoulder.”Fittingly, the matchup will serve as a duel between two of the Pac-12’s best signal callers: Kessler and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Hundley leads the conference in completion percentage (72.1) and ranks third in passing efficiency (158.0), while Kessler comes in at second in both categories. Containing Hundley — who has also rushed for 564 yards and seven touchdowns — is the key to putting the brakes on the Bruins’ offensive attack.“[UCLA]’s got an explosive passing game,” Sarkisian said. “They’ve got a plethora of receivers that they can roll through. They use a lot of tempo.”Junior defensive end Leonard Williams is focusing on Hundley’s running ability.“Last year and the year before we were kind of controlling the game in the first half and then [Hundley] started getting some scrambling yards,” Williams said. “That’s when they started coming back and winning the game.”Results aside, UCLA has clearly been an improved football team in the second half of the season. The Bruins started the year with ugly non-conference wins over Virginia, Memphis and Texas, eventually falling to Utah and Oregon in consecutive weeks. Pass protection proved to be the team’s biggest problem, as opponents sacked Hundley and backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel 23 times through five games. UCLA’s offensive line has buckled down of late, however, allowing only eight sacks since the Utah loss. Sarkisian and the Trojans’ defensive front will aim to reverse this trend on Saturday.“We’re going to have to be effective at [the pass rush],” Sarkisian said. “Brett Hundley’s just too good. We can’t let him stand back there and survey the field, and then when it’s not there, tuck the ball and run.”Helping USC in its goal to keep Hundley on his toes will be senior linebacker J.R. Tavai, who returns from injury this week. Williams feels that Tavai will play a key role against the Bruins.“I’m glad to have J.R. [Tavai] back,” Williams said. “He’s a great pass rusher, and he’s also physical in the run game. He’s definitely going to help us out.”Saturday’s contest could also play a large part in determining the Pac-12’s top rusher. Though redshirt junior tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen currently leads the conference with 1184 yards, UCLA running back Paul Perkins is right on his tail. Perkins has racked up 1172 yards on only 190 carries, compared to Allen’s 217. Sarkisian feels that the running game is an underrated facet of the Bruins’ success.“They’ve committed themselves much more to running the football with designed runs for the runner,” Sarkisian said. “That’s gone on for about the five or six weeks. [Perkins] just presents more problems. The more offense you have, the more versatility you have, the tougher you are to defend.”Last week’s 38-30 win over Cal was the latest in a series of games where the Trojans struggled to finish off their opponents — the team has been outscored 78-66 in the fourth quarter this season. Sophomore linebacker Su’a Cravens acknowledged this issue at practice this week.“That’s kind of been the problem we’ve had a lot this year is just to execute and be disciplined in the fourth [quarter],” Cravens said. “As long as we’re disciplined throughout the game and everybody’s doing their job, we won’t have to worry.”Though USC leads the all-time series 46-30, Hundley and the Bruins have won two straight against their crosstown foes. A win for UCLA this time around would leave them just one game away from a Pac-12 South title, while the Trojans still need an Arizona State loss to advance. This weekend’s battle kicks off at 5 p.m. PST and will be broadcast on ABC.Quick HitsThe Bruins are a four-point favorite to win their third straight against USC.As is tradition, both teams will wear home colors at the Rose Bowl. USC will again wear metallic red helmets.Sarkisian mentioned that senior cornerback Josh Shaw could play against the Bruins.“I’m getting closer to narrowing down his role,” the first-year coach said. “But a lot of his role just depends on how he looks on gameday.”Freshman safety John Plattenburg is fully ready to play.Still no update on freshman tight end Bryce Dixon, who missed the Cal game because of a student conduct issue. Dixon returned to practice this week, but his status against UCLA is unknown.last_img