A viewer's guide to USC-UCLA: Matchups to watch, key stats, and a prediction
No. 7 USC (9-1, 7-1 Pac-12) at No. 16 UCLA (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12)
5 p.m. PT, Rose Bowl Stadium
Latest line (via FanDuel): USC -2.5
USC’s key players
QB Caleb Williams: 3,010 passing yards (63.7% completion rate), 31 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 283 rushing yards, 6 rushing touchdowns
RB Austin Jones: 52 rushing attempts, 335 rushing yards (6.4 yards per carry), 134 receiving yards, 4 total touchdowns
WR Jordan Addison: 40 receptions, 587 receiving yards (14.7 yards per catch), 7 touchdowns
DL Tuli Tuipulotu: 32 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles
DB Calen Bullock: 31 tackles, 4 pass breakups, 4 interceptions
UCLA’s key players
QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson: 2,385 passing yards (71% completion rate), 20 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 463 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns
RB Zach Charbonnet: 152 rushing attempts, 1,145 rushing yards (7.5 yards per carry), 270 receiving yards, 13 total touchdowns
WR Jake Bobo: 43 receptions, 653 receiving yards (15.1 yards per catch), 6 touchdowns
OLB Laiatu Latu: 29 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 1 pass breakup, 3 forced fumbles
DB Mo Osling III: 70 tackles, 2 pass breakups
Who can slow down Tuli?
There are talented edge/pass-rushers on both sides of the field in this matchup. I’m on record numerous times as a big fan of the Murphy twins at UCLA, and Laiatu Latu has been nothing short of remarkable in his return from a scary neck injury. But the best defensive player in the game is USC’s Tuli Tuipulotu. He moves around the line and terrorizes everyone. The Lombardi Award finalist leads the country in sacks and ranks fourth in tackles for loss. He can beat his man in a few different ways, so how does UCLA try and counteract his presence? Flip the ball out quickly to playmakers? UCLA has done well this year to stay within Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s wheelhouse, but things broke against Arizona last week when the Wildcats were able to put serious pressure on the quarterback. The last thing UCLA can afford to let happen is to let Tuipulotu get hot. USC’s defense is at its best with a full head of steam and the ability to go aggressively attack the ball. If the offense is on-schedule and Zach Charbonnet is powering through the front, advantage Bruins. If Tuipulotu is imposing his will on the line, USC will be able to create a takeaway sooner or later.
Who wins out: UCLA’s run defense or USC’s remade rushing attack?
We’ll be getting our first look at USC post-Travis Dye. The senior running back was lost for the season in last week’s win over Colorado, leaving the backfield to former Stanford man Austin Jones and freshman Raleek Brown. Dye had 1,086 yards of total offense and nine scores in his 10 games as a Trojan. The leadership was invaluable. The execution was consistent. There was a stretch this season when Jones was completely out of the gameplan. He’ll get his shot at the leading role against UCLA, knowing full well Brown is nipping at his heels for playing time. The dynamic freshman is going to be on the field. Can he be effective? My guess is yes given how wonderful USC’s offensive line has been in the run game this year. UCLA doesn’t get beat for the big one, but it does get beat. That’s how you get your safety as your leading tackler. The Bruins gave up 4.5 yards per carry to Utah and then 5.7 to Oregon. They rank 114th in rushing success rate allowed, and USC (fourth in rushing success rate) is just as good as the Utes or Ducks are on the ground.
When you have two offenses that are this close to one another in terms of production, and you have two defenses that are this gettable, you’re going to see a bunch of points and some stressed-out play-callers. Both Lincoln Riley and Chip Kelly will feel like they have to keep putting points on the board. Neither will feel comfortable. Kelly and the Bruins saw this kind of game already back in Eugene. Both sides went back and forth. UCLA lost the turnover battle 1-0 and gave up an onside kick and that was that. That’s your two-score margin right there. Whoever gets bit by the turnover bug on Saturday is going to be up against it. The team that can steal a possession is probably going to be the one that wins.
Because of that, I like USC. Caleb Williams has been remarkable this season, and in a major matchup between two excellent offenses, I feel more comfortable saying Williams keeps it clean. USC won’t be able to slow Zach Charbonnet and UCLA won’t be able to corral Williams. With the opportunity to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game on the line, I’m going with Lincoln Riley and Williams.
USC wins 48-42