It's UCLA vs. USC, but really it's all about the Bruins

Both teams badly want to win the crosstown rivalry game, but UCLA appears to have more to lose

With all the subtlety of a Jim Mora stare or a Steve Sarkisian chest bump, the crosstown rivalry narratives are upon us.

One team is trying to overcome its demons. One team is trying to fulfill its potential. One team is fighting to find its niche in the city. One team is trying to cement its place in history.

It's all the usual stuff, except, this year, in a sharp twist that will wring the biggest drops of pressure down upon a single Rose Bowl sideline, that one team is the same team.

On Saturday afternoon, it will be UCLA versus UCLA.

Can the Bruins finally outrace a frustrating history, survive a defining game, own a giant moment? Will they actually live up to lofty preseason predictions while keeping alive postseason championship hopes? Have they truly turned a corner in both local perception and national reputation?

Isn't USC's main goal to simply prevent all those things from happening?

The teams have endured similar seasons and oddsmakers essentially consider them equals — the Bruins are favored by about three points at home — but they are arriving in Pasadena late Saturday afternoon from vastly different places with markedly different destinations.

If the Trojans are competitive and lose a close game, it could actually be considered a decent first step for the rookie Sarkisian and his probation-depleted roster. If the Bruins lose, it could be program-rocking devastation.

If USC quarterback Cody Kessler plays well and loses a close game, Trojans fans will happily ride his shoulders into next fall. If UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley plays well and loses, it could be the beginning of an ugly farewell.

USC, with around 30 fewer scholarship players and one more loss, has the wiggle room of an underachiever. UCLA, with a higher ranking and deeper roster and a coach who a year ago proclaimed that his team owned this town, is operating in the tight confines of a potential underachiever.

This year's crosstown rivalry is actually a crosstown bus, painted blue and gold, rumbling toward what many believe should be its destiny. As it approaches a legendary roadblock, the story is whether it can remain upright and on time.

It's all about UCLA battling itself, which fits perfectly into the message Mora has been hammering into the Bruins all season.

"Were you in our meetings? That's what we always talk about," Mora said with a grin after Tuesday morning's practice. "You can't ignore the significance of this game . . . but our goal every week is to come out and play against our standard. We have a saying — You prepare for your opponents, but on Saturday you play against your standard."

The Bruins have a two-game win streak against the Trojans, their longest since — sorry to keep bringing this up, UCLA fans — the 1998 season, when they beat USC for an eighth straight time before collapsing in Miami just hours shy of earning a spot in the first Bowl Championship Series title game.

This might be the closest they've been to a championship since then. If they can finish the regular season with wins against USC and Stanford, followed by a Pac-12 Conference title-game upset of Oregon, there is a chance they could land in college football's new four-team playoff.

The stakes here are enormous. The expectations here, lowered after consecutive midseason losses and restored in the wake of four consecutive wins, are once again huge. The opponent is USC, but with a mind-set only on continuing to build. The Bruins say their opponent could be anybody.

"We have a really high standard here now, and every week we try to play to that standard. It doesn't matter who the opponent is, they are nameless and faceless," said receiver Jordan Payton. "Every game for the last five weeks has been the most important game of the year for us. We understand what's at stake and what can and can't happen."

Payton shrugged and added, "We're not into the hoo-rah. We just want to play our best."

He can say that with confidence because a couple of months ago UCLA was a team that was drowning in the hoo-rah. The Bruins now admit their shaky start, which culminated in a blown game against Utah and a blowout against Oregon, involved a lack of focus caused by the national hype.

Said defensive back Ishmael Adams: "We got caught up in the rankings and how cool it was to be in the top 10."

Said Payton: "We got caught up in trying to blow people out instead of just winning the game. We came back to earth pretty hard."

Mora has picked them up and put them in front of a mirror and shut out all the noise and together they have grown. Last week in Seattle, for one of the few times this season, they dominated a game they should have dominated, running out to a 21-point halftime lead against Washington before finishing with a 44-30 victory.

"We've matured to the point as a football team this year where we're much better equipped right now to handle [the hype] than earlier in the year," Mora said. "I think maybe we've learned our lesson."

On Saturday, it will be USC's role to provide a grade. For the Bruins, the course is pass-fail.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

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