UCLA and USC entered this season with Pac-12 championship aspirations. Instead, they’re limping into their annual rivalry showdown at the Coliseum on Saturday with little more than pride on the line.
Moderated by L.A. Times associate sports editor Iliana Limón Romero,
college football writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje and Thuc Nhi Nguyen answered key questions entering the matchup.
Is this the lowest energy ebb in recent rivalry history and does that alter the value of a potential win?
Bolch: It sure feels like it. USC is playing out a lost season under an interim coach and UCLA might be in its final weeks under Chip Kelly if the Bruins slip in their remaining games against the Trojans or California. Thank goodness UCLA linebacker Bo Calvert, who at one point was verbally committed to USC, injected some vitality into the week when he referred to the Trojans as the “little boys across the street” and used an apt metaphor when he said the Bruins wanted to “put the final dagger in them.”
Kartje: There isn’t an ounce of juice in this game from an external perspective. At USC, fans are ready for this miserable season to be over and a new coach to be hired. Internally, players and coaches insist that the energy is there, but I have a hard time seeing it. There was no Victory Bell at practice. No buzz on campus. There was zero trash talk coming out of USC this week, and that was clearly intentional. When cornerback Chris Steele was asked about the emotions in this game, he told us he couldn’t say what he wanted to say, before he was ushered out of the interview. I think everyone on campus would prefer this season hurry along.
Nguyen: I knew there was a reason why Bo Calvert was one of the media’s favorite interviews. Getting a little bit of bulletin board material helps liven up the week when everything else about the season has been such a dud. We thought 2018, when UCLA was in its first season under Chip Kelly and the Trojans were heading toward a losing season, was an all-time low in disappointment, but we only had to wait three more years to go even lower.
Is Chip Kelly done if he loses this game?
Bolch: Well, he probably should be. As if compiling the worst record of any noninterim UCLA coach (16-25 entering this week) wasn’t enough firing fodder, losing to a Trojans team that has been disintegrating since early September might create the sort of groundswell among fans and donors needed to pay that $9-million buyout and move on to the next coach. It would be hard to justify moving forward with Kelly if he loses Saturday. It’s also important to remember that predecessors Jim Mora, Rick Neuheisel, Karl Dorrell and Bob Toledo were all fired during seasons in which they lost to USC.
Kartje: I agree with Ben wholeheartedly here. There’s plenty of precedent for UCLA firing its coach after an embarrassing loss to USC — Jim Mora and Rick Neuheisel would like a word — and this USC team is undoubtedly among the worst since its prolonged slump through the 90s. If Kelly were at USC, he probably would’ve been fired already. Or at least, banners would’ve been flying over the Coliseum calling for his ouster. At a certain point, if you can’t capitalize after this long, it’s fair to ask where this ship is heading. Seems like UCLA is at that crossroads.
Nguyen: I’m actually surprised we haven’t heard talk about a banner calling for Chip Kelly’s firing. Those were interesting days at the end of the Jim Mora era. This was supposed to be the year that everyone was waiting for at UCLA. Chip Kelly’s fourth season. His first recruiting class cut its teeth playing for bad teams to build experience and now the Bruins have one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference. Transfers came to strengthen key positions. If the pinnacle of the UCLA experience under Kelly is going to be this kind of inconsistent team struggling to reach .500 and losing to USC, then there’s no point in continuing with this experiment.
Kartje: If any UCLA fans are looking for a banner guy, I’m pretty sure USC fans have one on retainer.
Does USC winning this game redeem its lost season at all?
Bolch: Only in terms of social gatherings. Trojans fans who bump into their Bruins counterparts at holiday cocktail parties or have family members who went to UCLA would have lots of fun with winning and showing they can prevail in the rivalry game even in a historically down season, but there won’t be much meaning to it beyond keeping the Victory Bell on campus to greet USC’s new coach.
Kartje: Like Ben said, it might make some players feel warm and fuzzy years down the line, thinking of how USC beat UCLA three straight times or six times in seven years. But as far as this season and USC’s immediate future goes, there’s not much a rivalry win can repair at this point. USC is barreling toward a second season below .500 in four years. That’s a nadir it hasn’t fallen to since the 1960-61 seasons. USC still needs two more wins over the next three weeks to become bowl eligible, and while it desperately needs a win here to make that a reality, how much can a bid to the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl redeem all that it’s gone through this season? It can’t. All that matters now is getting the coaching hire right. It’s why USC brass gave itself three full months to do the search. And with that much time, there’s no excuse for getting it wrong.
Nguyen: USC’s season has been lost since at least late September when the Trojans lost to Oregon State at home for the first time in 60 years. This thing is buried deep in the ice somewhere like Captain America. Nothing, not even a win over a bad UCLA team, will save this season as the program prepares for a full restart. And no offense to Jimmy Kimmell; I’m sure the bowl game will be nice. But if I have to make December bowl plans, I’m trying to go somewhere to get Marriott points.
Bolch: At this point, I’m thinking Jimmy Kimmel is looking for the opt-out clause in his naming rights deal with the LA Bowl before it’s even played. Does anybody really want to play in that thing?
Can UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson beat the “everliving s—” out of the Trojans?
Bolch: Thompson-Robinson was emboldened by a glass of pinot grigio when he uttered those memorable words during a postseason video in December, but the sentiment should be sobering for the Trojans defense. Thompson-Robinson is 0-2 against USC as a starter despite playing well in both games and knows his legacy will be defined heavily by what happens Saturday. I expect him to come out a bit too juiced and overthrow a couple of receivers in the first half before settling into one of his most inspired games as a Bruin. I think he certainly could help UCLA win in a rout that would quiet both his and Kelly’s many doubters.
Kartje: In each of their last two meetings, Kedon Slovis had two of the best games of his career, overshadowing how well Thompson-Robinson has actually played. That won’t be the case this year, with Slovis sidelined by a lower leg injury and a true freshman taking his place. I have no doubt that Thompson-Robinson will be motivated, and up against USC’s defense. I also wouldn’t doubt that he finds success early and often. But the bigger concern for the Trojans on that side of the ball will be the duo of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. Brown’s status remains up in the air, but USC has been absolutely torched on the ground over the last month and that doesn’t even count the 322 rushing yards it gave up to Oregon State back in September. I expect UCLA to run it early and often, and that should take some of the pressure off of Thompson-Robinson.
Nguyen: USC might catch a break on the running back front with Brittain Brown working back from an injury that’s limited him in practice this week. But Thompson-Robinson has been a great addition to the running game in recent weeks and even led the Bruins in rushing against Colorado. The quarterback has quietly put together a really strong season. He’s taken better care of the ball, which was his No. 1 problem, is running more responsibly (except for yet another unnecessary hurdle against Colorado) and taking what the defense gives him in the passing game. I think he’s due for a strong performance against the Trojans.
Can Jaxson Dart rise to the occasion in his first start? What are the biggest challenges he’s going to face?
Bolch: Anybody who has watched UCLA’s defense over the last few years make freshman quarterbacks look like the next John Elway knows that there’s no reason for Dart to be nervous. UCLA’s secondary has routinely provided more cushion than a mattress store — I’ll never forget the defensive back backpedaling into the end zone at the moment Fresno State snapped the ball at the Bruins’ 18-yard line late in the Bulldogs’ comeback at the Rose Bowl — and has a maddening tendency to get beat even when it plays tighter coverage. The openings will likely be there for Dart to throw darts and have a huge day that makes him the quarterback USC wants going forward.
Kartje: After his dynamic debut at Washington State had fans dreaming about his future, Dart hasn’t exactly been a beacon of consistency since coming back from his knee surgery. That said, he’s still just a freshman trying to figure it out on the fly, and each of his past two appearances, he’s had to split snaps in a convoluted quarterback rotation that everyone but Donte Williams knew wasn’t working. Now, there’s no question that he’s the guy — and could be for the rest of the season if all goes well in this game. I expect he’ll have some early issues, but if he can iron out some of his inconsistencies of the past two weeks, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him provide a bit of a jolt to USC’s offense at a point in its season where it desperately needs one.
Nguyen: USC’s attempt at a two-quarterback system hurt more than it helped and it’s too bad to see what was expected to be a good year for Kedon Slovis turn into this dumpster fire. I agree with Ryan that there should be some early game struggles for the freshman in his first rivalry game, but because he adds such electricity to the offense, he should be able to capitalize against UCLA’s leaky defense for some big plays. With two bad defenses against dynamic quarterbacks, we could maybe get a high-scoring game to end the week with some fun.