Sunday, November 29, 2009

We run LA: USC 28, ucla 7

The Crosstown Rivalry.
The Battle for Los Angeles.
USC versus UCLA.

The 2009 edition of this rivalry seemed to be getting more hype as the potential changing of the guard game for football bragging rights in Los Angeles. If you read the LA Times before the game, you'd think UCLA could have rolled the Trojans in this one.

For Bruins and Trojans, it's all about LA

One team is surging, the other trying to regain its balance after embarrassing losses and weeks of public flogging.

But for the first time in years the roles are reversed.

When USC and UCLA play for the 79th time tonight at the Coliseum, Coach Pete Carroll and his recently staggering Trojans will try to hold off a Bruins team eager to show that the school's infamous "monopoly" marketing campaign was no joke.

UCLA-USC prediction:

Too close to call (almost)

And yet, after the Trojans suffered two of the worst losses in the program's history in the last three games against Oregon and Stanford, and the Bruins came in winners of three straight, it was the Trojans who looked to have the hot hand while the Bruins stumble around for 60 minutes.

+ Turnovers
The game was seemingly a pretty even affair with the exception of four Trojans takeaways to stifle several UCLA scoring chances. USC picked off Bruin quarterbacks three times and recovered one fumble, with two of the picks coming after UCLA had driven more than 30 yards on the drive. And that's really where the game was won for 'SC as three of the four turnovers led to scoring chances for 'SC.

Interception #1
The Trojans' Malcolm Smith returned a Kevin Prince interception for a 62-yard touchdown to open the scoring, 7-0 Trojans, in the first quarter. When the Trojans have been winning this season, they have been doing it with defense. The Trojans set an early precedent against the Bruins that they would be aggressive while UCLA's offense was at work.

UCLA took over after a Trojans punt late in the first half with delusions of grandeur ideas of getting on the board by halftime. They used defensive pass interference to get near midfield, and completed a pass for 14 yards. The next pass play, from Kevin Prince to Nelson Rosario went for 12 yards before Josh Pinkard recovered Rosario's fumble, halting the Bruins' chances. Instead, USC was able to drive 37 yards in five plays to set up a 50-yard field goal attempt. While the try fell short, USC's hurry-up offense proved potent, with quarterback Matt Barkley able to connect on a few out routes, and the receivers were able to get out of bounds to stop the clock.

Interception #2
The Trojans were forced to punt early in the third quarter, giving the Bruins the ball on their own 24 yard line. The Bruins ran the ball for two yards before Prince threw his second interception, this time to Will Harris, who gave the Trojans offense the ball deep in Bruins territory. It took USC seven plays to move 29 yards for the Allen Bradford 1-yard touchdown run, giving the Trojans 14 points off turnovers.

Interception #3
UCLA again forced a Trojans punt, with the Bruins taking over on their own 22. After driving across midfield to the Trojans' 47-yard line, quarterback Kevin Craft - who replaced Prince after he was knocked out of the game - floated a ball to Pinkard, who picked the pass at the 20 yard line to halt a potential Bruins scoring drive. The Trojans couldn't muster any offense on the ensuing possession and gave up the ball on a three-and-out, the fourth three-and-out for USC in the game.

Any time you win the turnover battle, 4-1, it's very difficult not to win the game. The Trojans defense set the table, and the offense finished dinner by converting turnovers into points.

+ USC Offense
The Trojans offense, for years though of as a big-play machine that cranked up 60-yard runs an 75-yard bombs directly to the end zone, didn't propel that seemingly now outdated stereotype. In fact, until the final five minutes of the game, the Trojans offense didn't have a drive of more than 37 yards in the entire game, and that drive led to the missed field goal at the end of the first half.

USC punted eight times on Saturday night. None of the Trojans drives lasted more than nine plays. The offense didn't get into the end zone until midway through the third quarter, and yet USC still seemed to be in control the entire time. The average drive moved just 20.1 yards (and only 13.8 yards per drive until the final two drives moved a combined 120 yards).

Matt Barkley was average at best for most of the game. There were times he tried to force balls, which he was able to complete on occasion. Other times he either missed or ignored an open man down field for an underneath target. I doubt he is not confident in going for the home run, however, he did pass up several chances to swing for the fences. Having said that (thank you Curb), he was able to work the short game to help move the chains. Of his 206 passing yards, 91 of them came in the fourth quarter, which is either a good thing that he was able to produce when it mattered most, or a scary reality that he was only able to amass just 115 yards through three quarters. Take your pick. Is the glass half full or half empty?

It just wasn't that great a game for the offense, but thanks to adding on some extra points in the final frame, the numbers didn't look too bleak.

+ The Controversy?
Did you hear about the "big controversy" with this year's USC-UCLA game? I know I didn't. I got a phone call today from a friend asking what I thought about last night's controversy. I was shocked. What controversy? What did I miss from Row 82 at the Coliseum?

The controversy in question refers to the Trojans touchdown strike after UCLA's called timeout when USC was trying to kneel down to kill the rest of the clock. I didn't realize this was such a big deal for a team to keep playing after being challenged to do so. Consider this:

The Bruins got the ball after a Trojans' touchdown, putting USC up 21-7 with 1:30 left in the game. After a 19-yard pass play to get near midfield, Craft threw four incomplete passes, turning the ball over on downs. Throwing four times with 1:30 left in the game and trailing by 14 says that the trailing team - UCLA - is still trying to get points on the board and keep this game competitive. If they can add on a touchdown to pull within seven, they can look back and say, "See, we only lost that game by 7. It was a close game. We're narrowing the gap between these two programs." In reality, adding that touchdown could do a lot for UCLA, and they were right to go for it. Instead, they didn't get it. They turned the ball over on downs, and USC took over on the UCLA 47 with 0:54 seconds remaining.

The Trojans walked out to the 47, broke the huddle in the victory formation, and took a knee to begin the process of running out the clock. The whistles blew, and the clock stopped at 0:52. UCLA had called a timeout. No problem here. UCLA is essentially saying that they aren't done playing. They have timeouts left, and if USC wants to run down the clock, they are going to have to run the ball, thus creating a greater possibility of a fumble or any sort of turnover, than the "safe play" of taking a knee. UCLA wanted a chance to get the ball back for that extra score, so they called timeout.

Having said that, if UCLA called timeout, presumably because they still wanted to play, to score, and to leave their mark on this game, then the Trojans should have every right to do the same. UCLA expected USC to continue to try to run out the clock, a process made easy by handing the ball off to a running back and having him stay in bounds. Instead, USC play-faked the run, and Barkley aired it out to a wide open Damian Williams for a 48-yard touchdown strike. 28-7 USC.

After that play and the ensuing extra point, the sidelines cleared in a stand off that saw a referee thrown to the ground by someone from UCLA. It was a good play call because UCLA was expecting run, and the Trojans faked the run to add their extra touchdown. Why should they add the extra touchdown? Well, if the results of this game have such a big implication on recruiting, then the Trojans should want to add an extra score to entice recruits to "join a winner" if they plan on playing big-time football in Southern California.

It's not running up the score. It's not poor sportsmanship. It's nothing more than a competitive game between two rivals. One was ready to head to the locker room with a 21-7 victory, so Pete Carroll ordered the troops to take a knee. UCLA wanted the ball back, so the Trojans gave it to 'em -- by kicking off after an extra touchdown to sweeten the win.

+ USC Defense
The USC defense regained some swagger with a 7-point stunting of UCLA's offense. It doesn't negate the 55 points given up to Stanford in the previous game two weeks earlier at the Coliseum, but it certainly helps take some of the sting away. The Trojans defense was able to disrupt the Bruins passing game, limiting quarterbacks Kevin Craft and Kevin Prince to a combined 18-of-39 for 188 yards and three interceptions. The Bruins running game, well their traditional running game, was held to 60 yards. They were able to more than double their ground game total by using designed quarterback draws and other QB scrambles to tack on 74 yards against 'SC. That was really the only thing UCLA was able to do that USC couldn't control, but when the QBs had to make plays with their arms instead of their feet, the Bruins came up empty-handed.

The four-turnover performance tied the 2009 season-high for USC's defense, equalling the mark against Arizona State three weeks earlier. It was evidence that the Pete Carroll defense that has become so potent and feared since 2001 still has the potential to take over a game, and that the efforts seen against Stanford and Oregon are more aberration than atrophy.

+ Punting aplenty
With one game left in 2009, the Trojans have punted 53 times, averagin 4.8 (so, five) punts per game. That seems like a lot more than in years past. Looking at the numbers, the Trojans in the Pete Carroll era (since 2001) have done a good job of not giving up the ball in past seasons, as this year's 4.8 punts per game could wind up being the highest since before the back-to-back National Championships.

YearPuntsPunts Per Game

Here's the breakdown of USC's punting in 2009 by game:

vs. UCLA

USC Punting
J. Harfman836345.41154

vs. Stanford
USC Punting
J. Harfman310535.00037

at Arizona State
USC Punting
J. Harfman829737.11151

at Oregon
USC Punting
J. Harfman623238.70048

vs. Oregon State
USC Punting
J. Harfman313244.00047

at Notre Dame
USC Punting
J. Harfman415338.30159

at California
USC Punting
J. Harfman312040.00047

vs. Washington State
USC Punting
J. Harfman313946.30251

at Washington
USC Punting
B. O'Malley416441.00053

at Ohio State
USC Punting
B. O'Malley518837.61041

vs. San Jose State
USC Punting
B. O'Malley620834.70345

The Trojans may not be going to the Rose Bowl, and the string of consecutive Pac-10 championships will officially end next week, however USC still is the big dog in Los Angeles. I leave you now with this image of Rick Neuheisel declaring the LA football monopoly officially over (two years ago). How's that going?

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