Johnathan Franklin probably said it best: “Whoever wins, that’s who you’re talking about all year. It’s for the city. It’s for bragging rights. It’s for everything.”
UCLA offense vs. USC defense: USC’s rush defense isn’t outstanding, though it limited ASU to 71 yards last week. Hard to see Johnathan Franklin coming up with anything less than triple-digit yards, though that depends on how well the youth on the offensive line perform. When not facing Oregon, the Trojans’ front four can pressure as well as any team in the conference. Here’s betting that Brett Hundley shows off enough savvy to escape sacks when necessary in the biggest game of his young career. Edge: UCLA
UCLA defense vs. USC offense: Jim Mora has talked up Marqise Lee and Robert Woods all week long, and with good reason. USC’s greatest offensive strength lines up with UCLA’s questionable secondary; if the Bruins give Matt Barkley time, deep throws will find either capable hands or a shower of yellow flags. The onus is on the front seven — which has performed well lately — to alleviate pressure on the defensive backfield. UCLA has defended the rush well, and the Trojans don’t have much depth at tailback behind a banged-up Silas Redd. Edge: USC
Special teams: UCLA needs Jeff Locke to limit Marqise Lee, whose 29.43 yards per kick return leads the Pac-12. The Bruins counter with Damien Thigpen, fully healthy after a minor knee sprain. Freshman kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn has been reliable for the Bruins from short range, but has yet to make a field goal from beyond 35 yards. If UCLA needs a game-winner on the final drive, well … Edge: UCLA, slightly.
Players to Watch: Lee, for the aforementioned reasons. Also, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week has been on a mission lately. Last week’s line: 8 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a safety. USC will protect better than WSU, but Barr is a future NFL talent that is a guaranteed weekly highlight reel. It’ll be fun to watch what the conference’s leader in sacks does against a team that has allowed 14 sacks — not impenetrable, but still good for second best in the Pac-12.
X-factor: How much will the coaching staff matter? Lane Kiffin is a crack recruiter, but has failed to prove his mettle at any stop he’s made across the country. Hard to see him out-strategizing Mora, who was apparently tailor-made to head this UCLA squad. Still, USC has more talent, and it’s not a game that requires much added motivation from up top.
Prediction: USC 38, UCLA 35. The Bruins are trying to end a five-year losing streak, but Southern Cal needs this win to avoid a spectacular crash of a season.