Bruins smelling upset against struggling Trojans
November 28, 2009
LOS ANGELES – UCLA’s current seniors were wide-eyed freshmen when the Bruins took down mighty Southern California three years ago. To a man, it’s still the finest memory of their football careers.
“That was probably the first time I cried because I was happy,” UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter said. “I never understood that before. We caught a pick with about a minute left, and I was crying, and I couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t breathe. It was great.”
“That’s tough to top,” fullback Chane Moline said. “It’s definitely unlike anything else in this game.”
UCLA (6-5, 3-5 Pac-10) has a fine crop of freshmen again this fall, along with a three-game winning streak and some sketchy bowl prospects that could use a little enhancement. When the Bruins wear their powder-blue home jerseys into the Coliseum on Saturday night, they have a chance to create another indelible memory against a bunch of Trojans (7-3, 4-3) who look eminently beatable.
Although USC is favored by 13 points, Los Angeles’ annual crosstown showdown doesn’t seem like a mismatch and that hasn’t been the case since coach Pete Carroll’s second season with the Trojans.
After two blowout losses to Oregon and Stanford in their last three games, the Trojans are out of the Pac-10 title race and simply hoping for a strong finish to a distressing season.
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Even the Coliseum doesn’t seem as formidable after the Cardinal’s 55-21 victory two weeks ago, ending Carroll’s eight-year streak without a loss in November.
“It’s a big deal here, finishing well with the season,” Carroll said. “So our focus is very keen right now, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to enjoy it and have fun with it. That’s the whole point. We’re here to enjoy the heck out of it and win when we can.”
The 79th edition of the rivalry features an elite program in a down year and a struggling program trying to move up.
USC had an extra off week for soul-searching and worrying after its two embarrassments and a graceless win over Arizona State in between. Carroll’s unwavering faith in quarterback Matt Barkley hasn’t changed, but even the Trojans’ staunchest fans have wondered whether the freshman quarterback was given too much responsibility too quickly.
Although Barkley was rated the nation’s top recruit when he landed at USC, UCLA redshirt freshman Kevin Prince has been his statistical superior over the past four games – with a big assist from senior Kevin Craft, who relieved him in a win over Washington to snap UCLA’s five-game skid.
Prince has passed for 1,010 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception in the last four games, while Barkley has passed for 697 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions in the same span.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Matt Barkley and what he’s done,” said USC center Jeff Byers, who also claimed Trojans fans were “spoiled” by the team’s success. “I think he’s done a phenomenal job managing the team. He’s played above and beyond what any freshman could ever anticipate. It’s not him. The wrong place to look is the quarterback position, that’s how I feel.”
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel knows a win over USC would affect everything from local recruiting to the national perception of his rebuilding effort, but he also acknowledges the size of the barriers presented by the Trojans in the Coliseum for his team, which is packed with Los Angeles-area players who grew up thinking USC was nearly unbeatable.
“This is a different chapter of UCLA football,” Neuheisel said. “The knowledge that things are possible is definitely important. It’s not superhuman to get things accomplished. It takes great concentration, and then going out and making it happen. Our guys, I think, will be ready for that kind of ballgame.”
USC has won two straight in the rivalry game, holding UCLA to seven points both times, since the Bruins’ 13-9 victory in 2006. Yet that memory still is strong in Westwood – even Neuheisel remembers calling former coach Karl Dorrell to encourage the stone-faced coach to show more of the emotion he had on the sideline that day.
The Bruins haven’t worn their home jerseys into the Coliseum since 1981, when the famed Olympic stadium still was UCLA’s home field. An NCAA rule passed around the same time UCLA moved into the Rose Bowl required visiting teams to wear white jerseys, but Carroll broke the rule last year in Pasadena – with Neuheisel’s eager approval.
“It’s a great tradition, and I think the colors are absolutely beautiful,” said Neuheisel, a quarterback for the Bruins in the early 1980s. “When I grew up, the Ohio State-Michigan game was in the mornings and the USC-UCLA game was in the afternoons, and that was what you watched. The colors in the USC-UCLA game just jumped off the screen, and this was before HD. The combination was just magical, in my mind. I think Pete thinks so as well, and that’s what we’ve got back to.”