Where have you been the last three months?
Aside from some fake Twitter account sniping, deflated ball schemes and in-game jersey number changing, Saturday’s Trojans-Bruins scheduled meeting has too much at stake for the first time in a long while to allow for any petty distractions leading up to the noon kickoff at the Rose Bowl.
A BCS 18th ranked Trojans team that began the season in the No. 1 seat by the Associated Press voters with a Heisman Trophy candidate senior quarterback chomping at the bit after two years of NCAA probation matches up with a BCS-ranked No. 17 Bruins team that started off all the charts with a freshman quarterback and new head coach but suddenly has the better overall record.
To the victor, the Pac-12 South title and a road available to playing in the Rose Bowl.
It was Red Sanders, who helped put UCLA on the football map in the 1950s by leading them to their one and only national championship in ’54, who once said about the rivalry: “Beating SC is not a matter of life or death . . . it’s more important than that.”
This week, that’s far more apropos than it has been in the past. If the Trojans and Bruins were on “The Voice,” everyone would be turning their chairs around to see this one.
“This one really did come out of nowhere,” said Garry Paskwietz, longtime editor of the Trojan fan blog WeAreSC.com.
“At the beginning of the season, it just didn’t seem possible that USC and UCLA would be meeting with the winner advancing to the conference title game.
“No matter how each team got here, the fact that this game will include such high stakes for both teams is what makes it all the sweeter. This rivalry is enjoyable under any circumstances but when both teams have something real to play for, it takes it up another notch. The goal is clear and simple goal — the winner moves on, so it’s basically playoff football with the season on the line between the Trojans and Bruins.
“If you’re a fan of this rivalry, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Tracy Pierson of BruinReportOnline.com concurs.
“It’s the first time since 2001 that UCLA is ranked higher than USC going into the rivalry game,” he notes. “I think there are also some unique reasons in terms of the two coaching staffs and their programs.
“For the first time in a while, there’s a perception that UCLA’s coaching staff is legit, and there’s possibly some legit questions about USC’s coaching staff. I think many people in the city — USC and UCLA fans both — sense that UCLA and Jim Mora have a realistic chance to actually ‘end the monopoly’ — at least be competitive. While USC fans would certainly like to keep down UCLA’s program for as long as possible, it’s not nearly as fun as both programs being good and the rivalry being competitive every year. “
Yup, it sounds like “Boom!” according to the newest UCLA player and fan chant, as T-shirt sales in Westwood with that slogan will prove.
Both the Trojans and Bruins can essentially change the context of their surprising seasons in the next 60 minutes of play.
== For USC:
After the Trojans’ disappointment by having three losses cloud their resume – including back-to-back against Arizona and Oregon ending any possible national championship hopes in late October – this presents a window toward redemption.
If 7-3 USC knocks off the Bruins, there’s a matchup with national rival Notre Dame on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a chance to derail the Irish’s undefeated season. Then, likely heading to Eugene, Ore., on Nov. 30 for a rematch with Oregon, the Trojans could squash the Ducks’ national title hopes with a victory in the Pac-12 title game. That would guarantee a trip back to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 where quarterback Matt Barkley’s college career can end on a much higher note, after he said he had “unfinished business” following two years of NCAA restrictions.
== For UCLA:
The 8-2 Bruins have plenty of unfinished business of their own.
They’d end years of frustration against the Trojans win a victory at home to clinch the Pac-12 South. After the season-ending game at Stanford — the outcome not mattering so much to the Bruins because it would hold a tie-breaker edge over the Trojans — UCLA would head to the Pac-12 title game.
That would most likely be against Oregon, which showed no mercy in handing the Bruins a 49-31 loss in the inaugural conference championship last season. That turned out to be Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel’s final game.
Between 1965 and 1978, the outcome of this annual meeting meant a conference championship and Jan. 1 Rose Bowl berth for the winning team nine times. In more recent years, dominated by USC winning five in a row, there hasn’t always been a brass ring available for either school to go after, only an occasional upset bid by UCLA.
Last year, though, things went kind of went backwards. Despite USC’s 50-0 win at the Coliseum to finish 10-2, UCLA took its 6-6 overall record and qualified to represent the Pac-12 South in the first conference championship game because the Trojans were under NCAA sanctions. Some USC players still wore “Pac-12 South Champion” T-shirts afterward, as if that helped ease the pain.
But this time . . .
Already, on the South Central L.A. USC campus, the statue of Tommy Trojans is under bubble wrap and duct tape.
Twelve miles away, on the UCLA Westwood campus, the bronze statue of Joe Bruin was put in hibernation mode, wrapped up a few days early to prevent paint from being dumped upon it as was the case as recently as 2009.
Would a group of rogue USC students dare tarnish the new John Wooden statue that’s been put up along with the new renovation of Pauley Pavilion? The Wooden tribute will also get the wrap treatment. Just in case.
“Been awhile since that UCLA-USC game has had some significance,” former Bruins quarterback Troy Aikman said during the Fox broadcast of Sunday’s Dallas-Philadelphia game after the network did a promo for its upcoming “Battle of L.A.” coverage.
“Got your interest?” asked play-by-play man Joe Buck.
“Yes it does,” answered Aikman.
As for what advice USC coach Lane Kiffin would have for UCLA coach Jim Mora as he participates in his first crosstown rival game: “He doesn’t need my advice. He’s ranked ahead of us.”