Reggie Carter believes it’s about time for Westwood to blaze again.
In 2006, after UCLA defeated USC, 13-9, the Bruins’ first win over their cross-town rival since 1998, fires sparked throughout the town, rowdy fans celebrating an unexpected victory.
Chairs were set aflame; couches, too. Even a car.
Carter remembers it vividly.
The next 364 days meant a whole lot more, though.
“The burning was just that night,” said UCLA’s senior linebacker, a freshman the last time the Bruins defeated the Trojans. “The celebrating, the talk about it didn’t end til next year. We held onto it for a year. You win that game, you keep that for the next year.”
That’s what this game means to players on both sides.
Forget the win, which would put UCLA at 7-5 and almost assuredly guarantee the Bruins a bowl bid or jump USC to 8-3, creeping them closer to a lost season’s salvation.
Forget the recruiting implications, which would boost the cases for each program, particularly UCLA, a team that is soaring up the recruiting-class ranks.
Forget even the game itself.
This is a year-long win, 52 weeks worth of trash talk and bravado.
But it won’t come easy.
The Trojans, who rank in the top-10 nationally in only two statistical major categories – punt return average and sacks. USC, which is in the midst of its worst season since 2001 – when the team stumbled to a 6-6 record in Pete Carroll’s first season as head coach – has sputtered all over the field, ranking sixth in the Pac-10 in both total offense and total defense.
The Bruins, meanwhile, are riding a three-game winning streak after a five-game skid, hungry, angry and ready for trouble.
But they are keeping things in perspective.
After all, in that last bad USC season, back in 2001, when the Trojans finished 6-6?
Final score: USC 27, UCLA 0.
“In their minds, they’re still way better, they’re still more talented,” senior cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “Our mentality is that we’re still going to put up a fight. There’s no change in mentality. They’re still the Trojans and they beat us the last couple years.”
UCLA can take solace in the fact that this is a totally different USC lineup.
The Trojans had 11 players selected in March’s NFL Draft, including five in the first two rounds, with quarterback Mark Sanchez going fifth to the New York Jets. This, after 10 Trojans went in 2008, with four first-rounders.
Still, despite losing so much talent, despite UCLA’s rise, USC enters the game as 13-point favorites.
“They’re just younger this year,” senior tight end Logan Paulsen said. “They play the same stuff, do the same thing, still have the same mentality. You can see the transfer. You just have to keep in mind you’re not playing Rey Maualuga or Brian Cushing.”
The players have changed, but the jerseys won’t.
UCLA will wear its home threads in the Coliseum, a year after USC wore its cardinal and gold jerseys in the Rose Bowl, rekindling a tradition forged decades ago, when both teams played in the Coliseum.
“I think the colors are just absolutely beautiful together,” UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel said. “When I grew up, the Ohio State-Michigan game was in the mornings, and the SC-UCLA game was in the afternoon. That was what you watched. The colors of the USC-UCLA game just jumped off the screen. It just was magical in my mind.”
More magical would be a win.
An end to USC’s dominance on the field.
A boon to the recruiting game.
A shift in the balance back to Westwood.
A cause for celebration once again.
“Westwood was on fire for a long time,” Carter remembers of that December night in 2006. “I don’t remember when I went to sleep. We saw the morning newspaper the next morning, and we were in Denny’s at 5 am. We were still up. It was great.
“We win and Westwood will burn again. I’ll make sure.”