Yes, it's rivalry week, but it seems like just another week of preparation for UCLA's well-tested defensive backs.
The unit has already been humbled by Houston's Case Keenum this season. They've been overwhelmed by Stanford's Andrew Luck, and completely exposed by Arizona's Nick Foles. The Bruins' secondary now gets a fourth crack at an elite quarterback, USC's Matt Barkley, who in recent weeks has played himself into the Heisman Trophy chatter and might be playing in his final collegiate game Saturday at the Coliseum.
And, as far as senior safety Tony Dye can tell, Barkley has changed drastically from last season and the year before that.
"He's much more mature," Dye said. "He's pretty amazing now on his progressions. He'll go from the first to the third receiver and still make a great throw. In years past he hadn't done that and would lock on to one guy. He was still a good quarterback so he could fit things in there, but now he's actually reading his defenses. That's where his progress has been."
UCLA hasn't fared too well in past road games against the premier quarterbacks, allowing 310 yards to Keenum, 240 to Luck and 319 to Foles. Barkley is coming off a 323-yard, four-touchdown performance against Oregon.
Barkley threw for 198 yards against the Bruins last season (though he was banged up) and 206 as a freshman in 2009 (though 48 of those yards came on the last-minute touchdown heave).
"He's a better decision maker now," junior cornerback Aaron Hester said of USC's signal caller. "It's a big difference from what I saw last year on tape when I was studying him. He's made tremendous strides. I've seen the top two quarterbacks in the country this year -- Keenum and Luck -- and he's neck and neck with both of those guys."
Barkley, though, has two things (or, in this case, players) that the others don't have: Biletnikoff Award finalist Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, a Pac-12 freshman of the year favorite. The two have combined for 2,098 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns this year.
"They find a way to get those two guys in open space, whether they start them in the backfield, motion them out or run screens through them," Dye said. "I think it's about us as a defense playing fast. We have to eliminate the one-on-one opportunities that they're going to create."
Other news and notes from Tuesday's practice:
-- Senior linebacker Sean Westgate, who suffered a concussion in Saturday's 45-6 win against Colorado, did not suit up.
-- Crowd noise, as well as the USC fight song, blared through the Spaulding Field speakers during UCLA's final 11-on-11 drills. Pre-snap penalties were crippling in the loss at Utah two weeks ago, and the Bruins are hoping to limit the number of unforced mistakes.
-- Freshman safety Tevin McDonald was asked Monday night during the school's "Beat 'SC" rally and bonfire whether he or his brother, USC starting safety T.J. McDonald, would have the better game Saturday. Tevin McDonald proclaimed he would. He's off to a good start this week, capping Tuesday's practice by returning an interception for a touchdown.