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USC v UCLA Football: Two Tales of One City

November 15, 2016

 

 

This was the year that Bruin football would make its mark. At least, that is what the so-called experts thought. 

 

Almost the entire Bruin defense returned. The offense lost some key veterans but the general consensus was that depth and coaching would rally behind quarterback (and Heisman Trophy candidate) Josh Rosen. 

 

No. 16 UCLA lost 31-24 in overtime at Texas A&M but things were still looking good for the Bruins—it was a quality loss on the road to a very good SEC West team. 

 

No. 20 USC, on the other hand, self-destructed in the first week of the season, getting spanked by Alabama 52-6.  The offensive and defensive lines looked soft and the secondary was a sieve. Some fans feared new head coach Clay Helton would lose the team. Angst and uncertainty loomed over a program that since 2010, had had its fill.

 

A 27-10 Trojan loss to a mediocre-looking Stanford would propel Helton to make a quarterback change. Redshirt junior Max Browne was out, redshirt freshman Sam Darnold was in. 

 

After a horrific 1-3 start, USC has rattled off six consecutive wins including a convincing 26-13 victory on the road at No. 4 Washington. The defense was inspired by the Darnold-led offense. And vice-versa. The team chemistry immediately improved. The playcalling improved. Helton no longer looked like a deer in headlights. 

 

UCLA, on the other hand, is still fighting to get bowl eligible. It must win its final two games against USC and at Cal to become bowl eligible. It must do so without Rosen, who had surgery on his throwing arm after suffering an injury at Tempe, Ariz. on October 8.  

 

College football in Los Angeles underwent a total personality change in six weeks. 

 

The Bruins lost four consecutive games. Former walk-on/reserve quarterback Mike Fafaul was the starting quarterback in three of those games but he should not shoulder any of the blame.

 

Surprisingly, UCLA did not appear to have Fafaul prepared for the dreaded "what if" despite its long history of injured quarterbacks. It affected the entire team. Receivers dropped balls. The defense had lapses in defending the run. It is quite possible that the team had too much riding on the success of young Rosen's arm.

 

Not all teams shrink like a frightened turtle when facing adversity. Ohio State was down to its third-string quarterback last season but still went 12-1. And then there is Colorado, who has not bowled since 2007.  

 

The Colorado Buffaloes beat Oregon State 47-6 without veteran quarterback Sefo Liufau. Colorado still "managed" to score 47 points on the Beavers and its defense held Oregon State's offense to six points.

 

UCLA mustered up 38 points against Oregon State but also allowed the Beavers to score 24. Fafaul got his first win as a starter and was awarded the game ball by head coach Jim Mora. Good for Fafaul—he earned that game ball. 

 

UCLA celebrated its "gutty little Bruin" victory, but the elephant in the room cannot be ignored. 

 

As long as the football culture in Westwood continues to embrace its underdog status and celebrate its underachieving conquests, UCLA will never become the top dog.  

 

UCLA has more NCAA national championships than any school although Stanford and USC are hot on its tails. UCLA is, however, perceived as having a disappointing football program by most college football analysts. It is surprising because Los Angeles has plenty of local talent to field two elite football programs. 

 

So here we are in a funky year with Alabama clearly the best team in football and USC the hottest. Take notice, West Coast football fans. 

 

USC's upset of Washington could be the beginning of the end for the wide-open Pac-12.

 

If there was ever a year to leave huge wakes in the Pac-12, this was it. Yet some of the league's biggest names listed heavily while the teetering Trojans threw their sextant against the wall and bore full steam ahead. 

 

Oregon is self-imploding, Cal and Oregon State are still rebuilding, Stanford is inconsistent and the Arizona teams look feckless. USC exposed Washington as a product of its soft schedule. The only teams flashing teeth are USC, Utah, Colorado and Washington State. 

 

Last week, No. 12 Colorado beat Arizona, No. 11 Utah beat Arizona State and No. 20 Washington State beat Cal. The games in November are the ones to remember and winners win in November.

 

UCLA knows this all too well.

 

In 2006, No. 2 USC lost to UCLA 13-9 in one of the greatest Bruin victories ever. A last-second interception by Eric McNeal prevented USC from playing for the BCS Championship. The Bruins' quarterback, Patrick Cowan, only had three days' notice he was starting the game over injured Ben Olson. 

 

Cowan was not a walk-on quarterback. But his chutzpah (and mobility) kept UCLA in the game. McNeal sealed the victory.

 

Fafaul could become one of the greatest Bruins of all time with a win against USC. But he needs his defense to stop the likes of Sam Darnold, Juju Smith-Schuster, Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Darreus Rogers, to name a few.

 

The Bruins have the talent. The Bruins have home field advantage. The Bruins have one of the highest-paid staffs in the Pac-12. Everything is in place. Well, almost everything.

 

Rosen is still out.

 

If it wants respect and a win on Saturday, UCLA must stop licking its wound, throw some dirt on it and play like it is invincible, not incapable. The Bruins need to come out of the Rose Bowl tunnel with the swagger of a Riverboat Gambler whose hair is on fire. 

 

A great story could unfold on Saturday. For either team.

 

After an ugly September, USC could find itself in the conference championship game.

 

Fafaul getting that signature win and the defense stopping the oncoming Trojan freight train would be, for many football fans, a gift to humanity.

 

Which tale will be told? 

 

 

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