If UCLA is ever going to turn the corner and become a prominent football program, the Bruins must beat USC.
They know it, their fans know it and the college football world knows it.
The annual crosstown rivalry has morphed in recent years into a big brother-little brother beatdown, with USC winning 11 of the last 12 games against UCLA, and quite often in dominant fashion. During that time, the Trojans have risen to national prominence, casting a shadow that engulfs Westwood.
The Bruins are showing signs of progress this season and, helped in part by some favorable scheduling, will play USC Saturday with the Pac-12 South Division title on the line. A victory would help push the Bruins closer to the edge of that shadow.
"It’s vital," running back Johnathan Franklin said. "We’ve been talking about turning this program around and taking it to the top. If we can beat USC it gives us that stepping stone that we need to overcome. We haven’t beaten them in four or five years. We have to win and hopefully things will fall our way."
But UCLA clearly hasn't reached the top of the mountain just yet. A look at their results this season shows an up-and-down season dotted with a few good wins, a few bad losses and quite a bit of in-between.
If the Bruins are going to take down the Trojans this season, they will have to overcome inconsistencies on both sides of the ball, and the well-balanced offense that has developed over this season will be key. A look at both in one up, one down.
ONE UP: The offense
UCLA has made a concerted effort to balance its offense this season and the Bruins have done exactly that, averaging 199.6 yards rushing and 194.3 yards passing per game.
The passing yardage is up more than 50 yards a game over last season and, perhaps more importantly, UCLA is averaging an impressive 8.35 yards per passing attempt. That number points to an effective passing attack even if the overall numbers aren't exactly prolific.
"I think our run action is a little bit better," said receiver Nelson Rosario, who has career highs with 48 receptions and 890 yards. "We have a lot of safeties biting on stuff and people trying to commit to the run and stop the run so that’s been helping us a lot to get open deep."
The run game was UCLA's strength last season, but the passing game was ineffective at best. UCLA ranked No. 116 in the nation in passing offense and as teams began to stack up against UCLA's run, they had no answer. That is no longer the case as receivers Rosario, Shaquelle Evans and tight end Joe Fauria have emerged as valuable offensive weapons.
Of course it's all a result of Franklin, Derrick Coleman and quarterback Kevin Prince running the ball effectively and opening up things in the passing game.
"Our offense is one that is predicated on being able to control the line of scrimmage and be able to run the football," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "When people stack up against it we have to either get the quarterback involved in the run game or we have to be able to get the ball down the field and over the top of them as the safeties become more involved in the run defense."
And that's exactly what has led to UCLA winning three of their last four games during a late-season surge.
"Our passing game last year, I don’t know what it was," Rosario said. "We just went down a hole but this year we stepped it up a little bit more and hopefully it continues."
ONE DOWN: Inconsistency
For every good action for UCLA this season, there seems to have been an equal and opposite reaction.
A win has followed every loss and the best wins have followed the worst losses. All but one of UCLA's five losses has been by margins of 25 points or more, but they've followed those with some of their most impressive performances of the season.
It's a strange phenomenon that has been difficult to predict or pinpoint other than just to say it comes from the growing pains associated with trying to get the program pointed in the right direction.
"We’re a work in progress," Neuheisel said. "We’re working to develop out of that."
The road has been especially unkind to UCLA this season. The Bruins are 1-4 away from home and have been outscored 79-18 in their last two road games. But after a 48-12 debacle at Arizona that proved to be the low point of the season, UCLA came back and reeled off it's only win streak with consecutive victories over California and Arizona State.
"I don’t know if I can put a finger on why that is," Prince said. "All I know is I’ve liked how we’ve responded when we’ve had adversity. But we can’t continue to have that pattern if we expect to achieve the goals that we want to achieve. We showed that we’re capable of winning back to back games and we’re going to have to do that again this week to get where we want to go."