LOS ANGELES >> Brett Hundley figured out the prime importance of UCLA’s annual crosstown showdown with Southern California when the Bruins quarterback won it last year on his first try.
“It’s crazy how much the UCLA and Southern Cal game changes things,” Hundley said. “To our fans, it’s the game of the year. We could do nothing and win this game, and it would still be a successful season.”
Both teams have accomplished plenty in a pair of impressive seasons, albeit on divergent paths leading to the Coliseum on Saturday.
After overcoming the midseason misery of Lane Kiffin’s firing with six wins in seven games for interim coach Ed Orgeron, 23rd-ranked USC (9-3, 6-2 Pac-12) wraps up the regular season by hosting No. 22 UCLA (8-3, 5-3), which fell just short of Rose Bowl contention.
The winner claims the Victory Bell and bragging rights for two schools separated by 14 miles of freeway. Even better, the game is a chance to put an unforgettable finish on the fall.
“You want to leave a mark on this game,” said USC quarterback Cody Kessler, who gets his first chance to face the Bruins. “You never want to lose to your rival, because you hear about it for a whole year. And we’ve heard about it.”
Although the rivalry dates to 1929, the game has rarely been played on such equal ground. The schools haven’t been next to each other in the Top 25 standings heading into the game since 1976.
After more than a decade spent looking up at USC, the Bruins interrupted the Trojans’ rivalry dominance last season with a cathartic 38-28 victory in Pasadena, capping their breakthrough under new coach Jim Mora. They’ve kept it going this fall, reaching the Top 10 with steady success while USC rose and fell.
“That was one of the big things we wanted to change, the whole aura of UCLA being the little school in L.A.,” Hundley said. “Now it’s a different story. It’s two great teams going at it, and the rivalry is back, big and strong again. It’s a start, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
But Los Angeles football took another improbable turn in October when the Trojans started winning for Orgeron. The good-natured assistant wasn’t considered a serious candidate for the full-time job until USC won its last five games — and with a win over the Bruins, his case would be compelling.
“This team is something special,” Kessler said. “It’s going to be a year that people are going to remember for a long time, how we turned things around and took as much adversity as a team could take. We just fought back and kept working hard.”
Five reasons to watch as UCLA tries for its first win since 1997 at the Coliseum, both schools’ home field for 54 seasons:
SMALLER STAKES?: The game could have decided the Pac-12 South, but the Bruins blew any chance of that for both teams with a 38-33 loss to Arizona State last week, clinching the division for the Sun Devils. That puts the rivalry at the center of the meeting, and both teams say that’s more than enough. “We’re both right on the edge of being where we want to be,” Hundley said.
SACK DANCE: The Bruins are likely to start three freshmen on their offensive line again after losing left tackle Simon Goines for the season last week. That could mean even more turf time for Hundley, who was sacked nine times by the Sun Devils. The Trojans have one of the conference’s best defensive fronts led by Leonard Williams and George Uko. Although some of Hundley’s sacks last week were on attempted scrambles, the UCLA quarterback knows he must rein in his predilection to hold on to the ball too long.
COLISEUM CLASSICS: The last two crosstown showdowns in the Trojans’ venerable arena have been memorable. Four years ago, Pete Carroll and Rick Neuheisel traded jabs after a last-minute timeout call prompted USC to throw a rub-it-in touchdown pass. In 2011, UCLA debuted an all-white uniform in the game, abandoning the tradition of both teams wearing their home jerseys. The all-white Bruins promptly lost 50-0, and Neuheisel was fired shortly afterward.
TWO-WAY JACK: UCLA linebacker-turned-running back Myles Jack is expected to play some defense again this week after moving exclusively to offense against Arizona State. The Trojans are impressed with the big, speedy freshman who revitalized the Bruins’ injury-plagued running game, but they claim they won’t do anything special to slow down Jack. The two-way star could make an even bigger impact on defense after the Sun Devils shredded UCLA last week. “It hurt us pretty good,” Bruins linebacker Eric Kendricks said of Jack’s absence. “We needed him.”
HEALTHY FINISH: USC receiver Marqise Lee is expected to play in what’s likely to be his final game at the Coliseum. The speedy junior is enduring a disappointing season after winning the Biletnikoff Award last year, and he’s expected to enter the NFL draft in the spring. Lee set school records with 118 catches for 1,721 yards last season, but has just 44 receptions this season while struggling through most of the fall with an injured knee. Lee claims he hasn’t decided his future, but he probably has only two games left to make 18 catches to break Robert Woods’ USC career record.