LOS ANGELES -- For USC senior defensive end Wes Horton, whose father played for the Bruins, the crosstown rivalry with UCLA holds special significance
It's Wednesday and with practice having concluded more than 15 minutes ago, Brian Kennedy/Howard Jones Field is empty for the most part, save for a small collection of USC players and coaches sprinkled here and there handling interview requests.
Off to the side, though, there are still a few stragglers getting some extra work in, not quite ready to call it a day. Finally, they make their way toward the exit, when the last to leave catches your eye -- Wes Horton.
A fifth-year senior defensive end with 29 career starts, 102 tackles and 13 sacks under his belt, he's not necessarily one of the guys you would naturally assume would still be out there. After all, it's not as if his game requires an inordinate amount of fine tuning at this stage.
But there he is, and it's that extra drive and determination that could be seen in everything that Horton did this past week, setting an example for everyone around him, catching even USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron by surprise.
"Especially this week, he kind of took over a leadership role that I haven't seen Wes do," Orgeron said. "He's not a vocal guy, but the way he practiced -- he practiced with an intensity that I haven't seen before."
For Horton, there was added purpose to his prep work. The veteran of a standout defensive line that has collected 32 of the team's 37 sacks, not only is his time in a Trojans' uniform winding down, but USC has been gearing up for its annual crosstown clash with UCLA, a game that holds special meaning for the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder.
"I've been here five years, I know what it's all about," Horton said. "I know all the old-timers, all the alumni, all of the Hall of Famers -- they're all going to be watching this game, watching how we handle a good UCLA team this year."
But the significance of the contest goes beyond just tradition and history for Horton, extending right into his everyday family life. It was his father, Myke, who first introduced him to the rivalry, but not from a Trojans angle.
A UCLA letterman on the offensive line in 1973 and 1974, it's safe to say that Myke raised Wes to view the game strictly through blue-and-gold glasses.
"I'm not going to lie, when I was younger I was a Bruin fan because my dad went there, but as time went on things just kind of changed," Horton said.
So much so, in fact, that with the Trojans racking up victory after victory under Pete Carroll, Horton would fall in love with the program and switch allegiances for good. A nationally recruited prospect coming out of Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame, he ultimately signed with USC on in 2008 without hesitation, later to be joined by older brother Shane, who would transfer in from UNLV that same year.
While the two brothers would go back and forth with their father at first with some good-natured ribbing, Myke's support for his sons would never waver, although he still hasn't completely converted over.
"He's a Bruin," Horton said. "He won't wear too much cardinal and gold."
Still, when it comes time for game day this Saturday, there's no question where Myke's loyalty will lie.
"Obviously, he wants us to beat UCLA because that's his kid playing against them," Horton said. "I think earlier on we used to joke around about it, but now he's all for me getting a win."
Undefeated against the Bruins in his time at USC, Horton has developed an emotional interest in the game over time, and it's a major reason for the intensity with which he practiced over the last week.
"I don't like them, to be honest with you," Horton said of UCLA. "I'm going to do everything I can to get after that quarterback and play relentless football."
Fortunately for Horton and Co., they have momentum on their side after a standout performance in last weekend's 38-17 Trojans' victory over Arizona State -- one that saw Horton contribute with five tackles and two tackles for loss, including one sack.
"Everyone kind of came into each practice very confident just because a lot of guys made a lot of plays in last week's game," Horton said. "So going into this week you could kind of feel the temperament of the guys on the D-line going into one-on-one pass rush [drills] with more confidence, getting more wins. Not only me setting the tone, but guys like George Uko are setting the tone, making it a lot easier for me to get the other guys riled up because it's a special week."
A special week indeed, especially for a certain senior who is more focused than ever on making his last appearance in the rivalry a memorable one.
"It's bragging rights for the next year -- we don't want to hear UCLA walking around in their baby blue and gold talking about how they beat the Trojans," Horton said. "I don't think I can take going out my senior year losing to UCLA, so I'm not going to let it happen."