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Friday, December 1st 2006

Preview: UCLA

So, it’s come to this. A BCS Bowl has been locked up, but a win and we play for the national championship for the fourth…

…Or Third, If You’re An LSU Fan…

…national championship in four (or three) years. Incredible. Win the next two games and the USC of the past five years will have to be mentioned up there with the greatest runs/achievements in college football history.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve been anointed by plenty as Ohio State’s competition in Glendale. Slowly, even amongst the gamblers (the spread has dropped from 14 to 12 in the past two days), the feeling is becoming that this game is being taken for granted by fandom.

It gets you worrying a bit. And then you remember, no coach coaching today keeps his team focused on the next game more than Pete Carroll. Just listen to his players,

“I think we do a good job of not making it more than it really is,” Kalil said. “The rivalry is fun for family, friends, alumni and all that stuff, but as far as us, all the great players, traditions, coaches and teams that played in the past are not going to be there with us on Saturday.”

“It is hard to separate yourself from that and focus on just the game at hand,” McFoy said about the rivalry. “It is something we try to do but it is always in the back of everybody’s head.”

“They are a regular football team just like us and we just have to go out there, out prepare them, out work them and we’ll be fine,” Kalil said.

UCLA Offense v. USC Defense

If there’s a reason everyone has written off UCLA’s chances (despite the fact they’re 6-5 and have this man as their head coach), it is because,

Here’s where it gets ugly, and I do mean ugly. UCLA’s offense stinks out loud. Since they started Pac-10 play September 23rd against Washington, they have only cracked 300 yards twice in nine games! Part of the problem was a mid season injury to starting quarterback Ben Olson, but the Bruins didn’t surpass 300 in any of the three Pac-10 games that Olson started, and they were against Washington, Stanford, and Arizona. Pat Cowan took over the job, and he has been mediocre. He has completed 54% of his passes for about 143 yards per game, with nine TDs and seven INTs. Those are not awe-inspiring numbers.

The Bruins are not going to stick Olson back into the fire. Probably a pretty reasonable move. With two QBs with similar “achievements” (here and here) you go with the one most on his feet.

This USC defense has been playing up to potential. Almost everyone will agree that the secondary, so young and inexperienced, has been playing lights out. I personally was impressed with the pressure we got on Brady Quinn (a point others are less willing to concede), but certainly we can all agree that even when Brady had “time” the coverage down the field forced him to leave the pocket and throw the ball away often.

The Heisman Runner-Up Completed Less Than 50% Of His Passes Against USC

Sadly, Cowan may be the Bruins best choice on offense. As bad as the UCLA passing game is (RB Chris Markey is their leading receiver), the running game is even worse. Last week against Arizona State,

Patrick Cowan threw a pair of touchdown passes to Brandon Breazell, a 56-yarder in the first quarter and a 35-yarder in the fourth. Chane Moline added a one-yard touchdown run for the Bruins, who only produced 274 total yards in the clash, including 87 rushing yards on 30 attempts.

And against a poor Sun Devil’s run defense. Markey is simply not a play maker (he lacks the big play potential), and the offensive line is much better in pass blocking (only 17 sacks this season) compared to run blocking (3.8 yards per carry). Part of that, according to Rivals (link above), is that Dorrell is an overly conservative play caller,

The big problem though is the playcalling. It has been extremely conservative. The Bruins scored two TDs against ASU, one on a quick pass turned big play, and another after an INT and a one yard drive. Then they proceeded to take the air out of the ball for three quarters. They do not throw vertically much at all.

I’m not sure I buy that. Okay, I buy it, you need only to have seen the Notre Dame – UCLA game to see how Dorrell goes into his shell. But having seen Cowan under center I don’t think the MAJOR problem is the play calling. This offense would suck even if Dorrell threw it downfield every possession.

The Los Angeles Times is convinced Dorrell is opening it up more,

In recent weeks, UCLA has improved in stretching the field, with mid-range to long throws going to wide receivers Marcus Everett and Brandon Breazell.

With defenses no longer able to crowd the line of scrimmage, Cowan has turned to Markey, who has at least three receptions in five of the last six games, and other Bruins backs. In UCLA’s 24-12 victory over Arizona State on Nov. 18, seven of Cowan’s 14 completions went to either Markey or fullback Michael Pitre.

I’m not convinced. Dorrell is a coward. Plain and simple. He saw the Notre Dame game (where they wanted to do nothing but throw the ball deep). Expect the standard Bruin play calling. Quick hits, and runs in the A gap. Dorrell will convince himself his only chance is not to even try to outscore the Trojans, but to put all his eggs in his defense’s basket.

The goal for the Trojans sits with the linebackers and secondary. I trust Mayes and Ellison on the few deep balls Cowan will attempt. But for the majority of the game, what will be called on of Rey Rey, Rivers, Sartz, and the secondary is sure tackling. The bRUINS run game is just godawful, and while they don’t throw in a terrible amount of play action, the Trojan linebackers cannot get caught up and preoccupied with their gap responsibilities on the line to the extent that we give up long runs after the catch.

UCLA will throw the short timing ball (slants, hooks) over and over. Assignments (keep your man in front of you) and sure tackling will be the absolute most important things for the USC defense this week.

I have absolute faith they will be successful.

I’m helped, in coming to that conclusion, but the fact that even UCLA doesn’t sound particularly confident that their offense can be successful,

“This is one of those games that you just have to hone in,” split end Junior Taylor said. “You can’t go out there with a lackadaisical effort and think that you’re going to beat this team. There are a couple of teams where you know, hey, if you don’t bring your game you’re not going to have a shot. They will embarrass you and we know that.

Taylor’s main concern lies in achieving a moral victory (not getting embarrassed) rather than in an actual victory.

USC Offense v. UCLA Defense

Here’s the “interesting” matchup. As Rivals sums it up (this link also has their prediction for the game),

UCLA’s defense presents an interesting match-up for the USC offense – and one better equipped to make the Trojans work hard than Oregon, Cal or Notre Dame were. The Bruins have really made hay getting after opposing quarterbacks and have been strong against the run, except in losses to Oregon and Cal. The Bruins undersized linebackers have struggled in those games, and can be dominated if USC’s offensive line does its normal job of handling opponents’ defensive linemen.

If there’s a strength everyone will tell you it is the defensive line and especially ends Hickman and Davis. As it is my “key” for the Trojans offense, CBS highlights the matchup of USC’s guards versus these two talented defensive ends,


LT Sam Baker — He and Kyle Williams will be locked up in a critical battle with UCLA ends Justin Hickman (second nationally in sacks) and Bruce Davis (third nationally in sacks). Baker, a junior, was chosen to the All-Pac-10 team for the second consecutive season.

Many criticize the secondary for giving up a ton of yardage to talented passing teams (which USC certainly looked like, last week). Then again, USC gave up its share to Brady, but was still impressive in keeping the Irish out of the endzone and forcing him into poor throws. So, yardage isn’t everything.

What We Can Say Is They’re Not Very Clutch

The real weakness is in the middle of the oreo UCLA defense. Shifty C.J. Gable should easily break 100 yards, even though he’ll probably get a few fewer carries than against Notre Dame. This UCLA linebacking corp is simply not up to the task of stopping Trojan backs who run hard (and that is one of my biggest compliments for Gable).

But, like I said, the key to USC’s offense (and to the game as a whole) is how well the Trojan line protects Booty. I trust Booty not to make too many mistakes, so I hope I don’t have to worry about too many turnovers, but we don’t want to get into third and longs and give Sar-Kiffin an excuse to resort to conservative play calling.

UCLA is an aggressive team on passing downs, which Rivals actually thinks favors the Trojans,

This interesting question looms for UCLA: to blitz or not to blitz? Walker likes to be aggressive, and he felt that the team took a step back in the middle of the season when they went to less blitzing in order to protect their corners from some great players like Jaison Williams, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hill, and DeSean Jackson.

The Trojans, on the other hand, want you to blitz, so they can take advantage of John David Booty’s strengths: making the hot read, throwing the short pass with accuracy, attacking the middle of the field without worrying about linebackers or safeties. If you were Walker, what would you do?

I do think DC Walker will send the blitz, probably some the offensive line will not have seen on game film.

While it is true that holding USC’s offense to ~300 yards is a major key, that alone (with the way the Bruin’s offense plays) will not be enough. The Bruins will need one of two (or probably both):

  • A +2 Margin In Turnovers
  • At Least One Game Changing On Defense (TD) or Special Teams

Those are on top of the front seven playing the game of their lives to stuff the USC run and Hickman and Davis getting to Booty continually, so as to hold USC’s offense in relative check.

Other Stuff

I don’t care how the AP tries to sell it, UCLA just does not look up for this game emotionally. They seem to just know that they’re out matched. For instance,

According to television report by Eyewitness News, Dorrell addressed the Bruin-Trojan audience by saying something to the effect of “we hope to give them a game.” WTF?? Did anyone see the news reports and get the exact wording? Please send it in. The news report, apparently (we did not see it, it was reported to us), mocked Dorrell for basically conceeding we did not have a chance against such a superior team. The report also stated that Pete Carroll followed with comments to the effect of “he’s selling his team short!”

Or Instance,

In front of a crowd of several thousand at Wilson Plaza, the event, which began with a parade, featured significantly less trash-talking than in previous years.

Softball coach Sue Enquist and former volleyball All-American Karch Kiraly were grand marshals, with Enquist focusing on the academic reputation of the school and Kiraly pointing out that four of the five losses in his career were to USC.

Even former assistant coach and assistant director of academic services Ed Kezirian, known as the “Towel waver,” focused on being “ready to compete” and not on winning.

This is a bad sign. If there is a good sign for UCLA, it is some Trojan distractions.

Arizona Cardinal quarterback Matt Leinart would love to play for his old coach, Pete Carroll, in the NFL if the speculation of talk radio in Phoenix and one published report ever turn out to be true.

But Carroll just laughed off the talk of him heading off to the NFL again as he worked Wednesday to prepare his second-ranked Trojans (10-1, 7-1 Pac-10) for UCLA (6-5, 4-4) Saturday (1:30 p.m., Chs. 7, 42) in the Rose Bowl.

“Six years,” Carroll said of the rumors that have cropped up at the end of every one of his USC seasons.

“It happens every year,” he said. “It’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”

I hope the humanitarian doesn’t leave. Not only would it crush me as a fan, but it would be a major mistake, no matter how big a competitor he is.

That however is another story. For this story, my final word is,

USC 34 – UCLA 7

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