What to watch: No. 22 UCLA at USC

Some people just can’t let go of the past.

On UCLA’s side, there was linebacker Aaron Wallace, who was redshirting when the Bruins fell apart in a historic 50-0 loss to USC in 2012. Since then, Wallace has been a part of three straight victories, with each one coming by double digits. In his mind, however, that still hasn’t balanced the scales.
“I don’t think anything ever will,” the senior said this week.

On the Trojans’ side, there was quarterback Matt Barkley, whose college career ended when he was sacked by UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr in 2012. Now a backup for the Arizona Cardinals, he responded to a Pac-12 Networks’ video of that play by pointing out the “50-0 embarrassment the year before.” (Barr himself responded with, “what have you done for me lately.”)

So it goes in one of the unique rivalries of college football, one separated by 14 miles. The latest edition pits together two teams who have seven combined losses, but are still vying for the Pac-12 South title. History is at stake too: When the No. 22 Bruins visit the Coliseum on Saturday (12:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2), Jim Mora will try and become the first UCLA coach to win four straight since Terry Donahue.

When UCLA has the ball

While Barkley was successful in his own right as a true freshman in 2009, Josh Rosen has put his numbers to shame.

UCLA’s true freshman quarterback has thrown 218 passes without an interception dating back to Oct. 15, a school record as well as the longest active streak in the FBS. Barkley had a pick in all but two of his 12 appearances as a hot-shot five-star recruit. The former Trojan star had 15 touchdowns to 14 interceptions that season; the current Bruin’s ratio stands at 19 to seven.

Can Rosen keep his run going in his first rivalry game? He recently insisted that the hype won’t throw him off; after warm-ups, he’ll simply find his spot in the locker room, take a deep breath, and expel any nerves — his usual routine.

That USC’s defense is at less than full strength can only help. The Trojans recently lost leading tackler Cameron Smith as well as key backup Lamar Dawson, leaving Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate Su’a Cravens to anchor a depleted linebacker corps.

More troubling is the secondary, which blew multiple coverages in a 48-28 loss at Oregon last weekend. Vernon Adams, the Ducks’ dynamic playmaker, had a career performance, throwing for 407 yards and six touchdowns. No quarterback had ever had as many passing scores against USC (7-4, 5-3).

But troubles have beset the Bruins’ offensive line, with left tackle Conor McDermott looking very doubtful to play after injuring his knee at Utah last week. The redshirt junior has been an invaluable part of the UCLA’s turnaround up front, helping the team hold defense to just 15 sacks through the last seven games of 2014. Kolton Miller has promise, but starting a redshirt freshman at such a vital spot is hardly ideal.

USC’s defense isn’t nearly as dangerous with Leonard Williams, but there’s still talent on the line. Defensive tackles Antwaun Woods and Delvon Simmons have combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks, while freshman Porter Gustin has notched 4.5 sacks as a rush end.

Edge: UCLA

When USC has the ball

With senior quarterback Cody Kessler, the Trojans look just as prolific on offense as they did a year ago, ranking top-25 nationally in both yards per attempt (6.55) and average scoring (35.6 points).

USC has playmakers all over the field: JuJu Smith-Schuster is playing with hand and ankle injuries, but his 1,217 receiving yards leads the conference by a wide margin; freshman Ronald Jones averages 6.78 yards per carry, more than any Pac-12 player with at least 80 touches; the versatile Adoree’ Jackson is a threat to score in all three phases of the game.

To disrupt that attack, UCLA will need a strong performance from its defensive line. USC has lost its top two centers in Max Tuerk, All-Pac-12 first-teamer, and sophomore Toa Lobendahn, who moved from guard. Right guard Viane Talamaivao also injured his knee earlier this month, but is expected to return.

That should present a good matchup for Kenny Clark, who has been by far UCLA’s best defensive player. The junior nose tackle has become a dangerous pass rusher, recording all five career sacks this season, and has capable players next to him in sophomore Matt Dickerson and defensive end Takkarist McKinley.

Outside linebacker Deon Hollins also seems due for a big game. The junior only has 2.5 sacks this season after leading the team with nine in 2014, though he’d attribute much of that drop to officials not calling holding penalties. Hollins also said this offseason that USC right tackle Zach Banner was the most difficult one-on-one matchup for him last fall.

Edge: Even

On special teams

Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 49-yarder against Utah, but the Lou Groza Award finalist remains one of UCLA’s most dependable weapons. If the offense sputters in the red zone again, the senior kicker will make sure the Bruins don’t come away empty. Should the game come down to the final few possessions, the team can also feel good about putting in position for a go-ahead field goal.

Ishmael Adams was taken out of the return game entirely at Utah after some questionable decisions in previous weeks. Devin Fuller has been very effective there for most of the season, so he should stick there as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle. Roosevelt Davis also got a turn fielding punts. USC is near the top of the conference in kick return coverage, but near the bottom on punts.

Jackson also has a penchant for making some odd choices as the Trojans’ returner, but he’s dynamic enough to break the game open. His per-return averages aren’t great, but he took a punt back for a touchdown last weekend. Kris Albarado’s 41.4 yards per punt are pedestrian, while kicker Alex Woods could still be out with a concussion. Even if he does play, he already has three misses inside the 40-yard line.

Edge: UCLA, slightly

Prediction: UCLA 35, USC 28. Given how consistent Jim Mora has been against the Trojans, smart money is probably on a fourth straight victory. Most of our sports staff seems to agree.