In two stints as an USC assistant coach, Steve Sarkisian saw the Trojans win six rivalry games with just one loss. As the program’s head coach, he’s 0-for-1 against UCLA — part of the Bruins’ three-win streak.
Asked about the factors that have tilted the rivalry to Westwood, Sarkisian traced the roots to Rick Neuheisel. Despite the his lackluster on-field record, the former UCLA head coach pulled in three top-15 recruiting classes from 2008-10. That gave Jim Mora some of the tools he needed to put the Bruins back atop Los Angeles football.
“They’ve recruited really well,” Sarkisian said on Friday. “I want to make sure I give Rick credit here too, because Rick brought in some really talented players: Brett Hundley, Owa (Odighizuwa), all these guys.
“I know Rick didn’t get to see it through, and Jim came in and continued upon that, recruiting good players. I think they’ve performed really well. The quarterback play with Brett really helped them. I think the first time around, their quarterback play struggled some.”
These are cogent points. As good as Mora has been, he needed Neuheisel recruits like linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive lineman Datone Jones to turn the program as quickly as he did. Having Brett Hundley — the first UCLA quarterback drafted in 15 years — was also crucial.
But like many coaches, Sarkisian also wanted to reestablish a sense of control. He did so by hinting at a familiar trope: They didn’t win; we lost. USC — favored to win the Pac-12 this year — has lost three straight games to UCLA by a combined 49 points because the Trojans haven’t played up to their potential.
“Probably the biggest difference is we haven’t performed, quite honestly,” he said. “We didn’t get it done, and that was unlike us, especially a year ago. We didn’t play the way we were capable of playing. A lot of those other games when I was here before, that only happened one other time. The rest of the times, we went out and performed really well against UCLA. That’s what it’s going to take to beat them.”