The two teams have shared one city and one rivalry for 88 years. One is heading for a losing record. The other can still find itself bowl eligible. They are going in two different directions, but not the way one might think.
UCLA, (2-8), and USC, (5-5), renew their Crosstown Showdown Saturday afternoon at the venerable Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The Trojans hold a 47-31-7 lead in the series. They have had two wins vacated by the NCAA. They have won the last three in the series, including 28-23 last season at the Coliseum. UCLA owns the longest win streak in the series, having taken eight straight games from 1991-1998, crossing the Terry Donahue and Bob Toledo coaching eras in Westwood.
A Literal Backyard Brawl
The schools are only 13.2 miles apart from each other, the closest of any rivals in major college football. The two schools recruit many of the local high school talent. As such, there is a long history of high school teammates going to opposite schools and becoming the hated enemy for the next four years. This is about having to spend the next 364 days enduring the loss at every college party you go to in town. Every time you want to go back and hang out with friends or old high school classmates for a weekend, this is the first topic. This is a game that separates family members, fathers from sons, and brothers from each other. Red Sanders, who coached UCLA in the 1950’s, used to say, “Beating USC is not a matter of life and death. It is more important than that.”
The rivalry has seen a little bit of everything. Fourth string quarterbacks stepping in to claim unexpected wins. A match-up of Heisman candidate quarterbacks, with one allegedly not practicing all week due to a reported case of the measles, only to dominate the game. A stunning rushing game by a Heisman winner who would later become much more well-known for a double homicide. Last minute blocked field goals, sacks on two-point conversions, bobbled game winning catches. It has had everything an intense rivalry is supposed to have.
The fans don’t care for each other. UCLA fans wave their car keys as the Trojan band plays, as a taunt for USC being an expensive private school in the middle of the inner city. USC fans mock UCLA for being the poor public school, even though it is nestled in the cradle of Bel Air and Westwood.
Where Are They Going?
This year may be unique in ways previously unimagined. The Bruins come in 2-8 and the Trojans 5-5. Yet it is USC who is appears to be playing for their coach’s future. Bruin fans expected more out of year one in the Chip Kelly era but are trying to look down the road. For USC fans on social media, the Trojans’ “down the road” does not include Clay Helton, despite his having won a conference championship and a Rose Bowl in three years at the helm.
The 13 combined losses are the most ever in the nearly nine decades of the series. Yet UCLA fans go into Saturday with more So Cal “chill” than do the SC fans. Do SC fans just care more? Are UCLA fans more accepting of the poor season because of the coaching change?
Helton On The Edge Or The Ledge?
USC has struggled for its record. True freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels was the choice of Helton from week one. He beat out redshirt freshman Jack Sears, and it is a decision that 10 weeks later is still not sitting well with some of the fan base. Daniels was ordained with a story line that had him skipping his senior year of high school to get to USC early. Of course, he would have been 19 years old by his high school graduation anyway, having repeated eighth grade for the purposes of developing as a football player. If all you do is look at Daniels’ stats, they would reflect a typical true freshman playing big-time football. He has a mediocre 57% completion rate with only 11 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
What you must dig into is the lack of performance in the losses. Sixteen of 34 for 215 with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a loss to Stanford in week two will jump out at you. He was six of 16 for 89 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions when he left the Utah game with a concussion in mid-October. The Trojans lost. He would miss the next game, another loss, against Arizona State. Of USC’s five losses, four are in conference. They also lost to Texas and they have Notre Dame at home on Thanksgiving weekend.
The offense is ranked 94th in the country. Helton took over the play calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin two weeks ago. SC beat Oregon State and lost to Cal since then, scoring only 14 points at home against the Golden Bears. USC lost a lot of talent to the NFL off last year’s squad, but they also had the number four recruiting class in the country this year according to 247Sports. That’s one spot higher than Alabama. Is the group too young? Is too much being expected of them too soon? Or is it the wrong mix? Scott Wolf has been covering USC for 20 years. He says the Trojans are in trouble.
Usually, when a coach is on the hot seat, you hear a segment of people say to keep him so the recruiting class does not break up. But #USC doesn't really seem to have a recruiting class to hold together
— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) November 12, 2018
When Does UCLA’s Future Start?
What about the 2-8 Bruins? How are they surviving? UCLA has lost at least 20 players since Spring camp. Some have left of their own volition. Some had their spots taken from them. There have been season-ending injuries to key starters like Josh Woods before the season even started. And there has been an onslaught of injuries, several season-ending since the season started. Some players who had been staples of the program for the last two years have been declared out for the season because of injury and then made it clear they will not be back, even with eligibility remaining. UCLA’s practice Monday had only 57 healthy, active scholarship players.
They have had their own perils of youth at quarterback. Grad transfer Wilton Speight started the season but couldn’t make it out of the first half of the first game before a back injury sidelined him. That introduced the fan base to the true freshman they had been wanting to see, Dorian Thompson-Robinson. There was not much doubt that at some point he was the future for the Bruins. But it was equally clear he was nowhere near ready for the task in the first three weeks. He was 41 of 75 with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the 0-3 start. Ironically, his best performance was the toughest game in Norman, Oklahoma.
The Bruins have one of the youngest teams in the FBS and have not grown as quickly as anyone would like. The offense is ranked 93rd, even with the emergence of a viable running game with Joshua Kelley. There was social media criticism of the coaching staff and play calling from Thompson-Robinson’s father early in the season and UCLA fans had to be wondering what they got themselves into. The offense has shown flashes of the pace and mobility fans expected when Kelly was hired in December. But it has also shown youthful mistakes, even as late as week 10.
Thompson-Robinson has also had a hard time staying healthy with shoulder injuries. Speight missed five games with his back injury but returned intermittently in relief at the end of the season including starting last week in the loss at Arizona State. Who starts Saturday will be known when the game starts and not a moment before. The guess here is Speight.
While no one is happy with 2-8, there is a modicum of patience, because for the first time in program history, UCLA swung for the fences on a coaching hire and got their guy. Kelly was offensive coordinator for two years at Oregon before he made magic as head coach. He had a head start. Not so at UCLA. Some are patient and accept that things will take a year or two. Others are clearly less patient as the Bruins have had some of their worst home attendance figures in years.
So, what does the Crosstown Showdown game look like when one team is teetering, and the other is building for next year? There won’t be any rah-rah rivalry speeches from Chip Kelly, for sure. It’s just not who he is. He will treat it like it is week three of the season; a game you need to win and then move on.
For the rest, the fan bases will still get amped up. A crowd of 80,000+ is still expected at the Rose Bowl. The tailgating will still start pre-sunup. Both teams, by mutual agreement, will wear their home uniforms because the color explosion against the afternoon sun is a site to behold. The bands and trash talking will still be at the forefront. Fans of the winning team will start holiday shopping wearing their team gear. The other side will be a little more discreet for a few weeks.If you have a bad season, so much is forgiven if you win this one game. When the battle is in your backyard, you live it 365 days a year. It’s not life or death, “It’s more important than that.”