Here are five key storylines to watch for the USC Trojans in the crosstown matchup with the Bruins on Saturday.
1. Defensive cohesion: The biggest area the Trojans need to clean up for this game is the miscommunication and coverage errors that surfaced too many times against Oregon. QB Josh Rosen and a balanced UCLA offense are more than capable of putting pressure on the Trojans if defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is unable to find the correct mix of schemes, but the Trojans have shown plenty of times in recent weeks that they have the ability (and personnel) to stop the run and get after the quarterback. How they do those two things, especially making Rosen uncomfortable in the pocket, should go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.
2. Cody Kessler: This is it for the Trojans senior quarterback. His final appearance in the Coliseum, his 39th start overall. There have been many passing records, some quality wins and a reputation as a good representative of the university. What there isn’t, however, is that tangible item at the top of the résumé, the kind of big win or title that separates quarterbacks on the USC pecking order of all-time greats. If he can stop the losing streak to UCLA and advance the Trojans for the first-time ever to the conference title game it would be a huge accomplishment as a capper to his career.
3. Clay Helton: The effort put forth by Helton in recent weeks has endeared him to USC fans for taking on a tough job and putting his best foot forward. There’s little doubt he’s shown that he’s ready to be a head coach, whether that is at USC or not, and the debate on his chances to land the Trojans job will certainly gain much clarity after this game. As much as anything, his job is to have the team ready to play at a level that is warranted for this rivalry. That didn’t happen last year, and it needs to change in this game for USC to get the win.
4. Center: The Trojans are down to the third-string center on the depth chart, Khaliel Rodgers, after season-ending knee injuries to Max Tuerk and Toa Lobendahn. Multiple bad snaps last week in the loss to Oregon resulted in Nico Falah getting plenty of reps this week at center. Falah has been used primarily as a reserve tackle and guard to this point in his USC career but if the snapping issues continue for Rodgers, don’t be surprised if Falah ends up getting his shot to play a major role in this game.
5. Time to end the streak: Whether it’s the streak of three-straight losses to the Bruins, or the lack of appearances in the Pac-12 title game, there is much to be gained for the Trojans on Saturday with a victory. Coach Jim Mora has made up ground in his time with the Bruins as he has beaten three different USC coaches and has also made up ground in the recruiting wars. USC wants to put a halt to that momentum, and you only get one chance a year to do it. Saturday is that day.