Quarterbacks can define their legacy in USC-UCLA game

Quarterbacks can make or break their reputations when USC and UCLA meet in the crosstown rivalry.

Brett Hundley is already a member of an exclusive club, and could be admitted into a special wing. Cody Kessler is on the outside looking in.

Opportunities to compare and contrast abound when UCLA plays USC on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. The junior quarterbacks can define their legacies when they lead their teams in the 84th game between the crosstown rivals.

Hundley, who probably has a spot reserved in the first round of this spring's NFL draft, can leave UCLA as only the fifth quarterback for either school to start and win three games in the rivalry.

Kessler's statistics this season's match Hundley's. Some are even better. He enters this game with far less fanfare and is not expected to go pro early, but he could ramp up expectations for 2015 if he can lead a win.

"What this game does is create legends," former UCLA coach Terry Donahue said. "Quarterback is the most talked about, and at times highly criticized, position. This game has defined many, many quarterbacks."

Including a few who were far from household names before the game.

Norm Dow started one game for UCLA. He beat USC in 1966 while subbing for Gary Beban. Dean Schneider had never taken a snap during a game before he replaced Jim "Mystic" Powers in 1949 and led the Trojans to victory.

There is no logic involved. UCLA's Troy Aikman passed for 41 touchdowns in the 1987 and 1988 college seasons. He went on to win three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. But he never defeated USC. Steve Sogge had as many passes intercepted as were caught for touchdowns — 16 in his two seasons as USC's starter — but was 2-0 against the Bruins.

Onto that stage step Hundley and Kessler.

"I had some bad moments, and UCLA fans will remind me about those," said Wayne Cook, the Bruins' quarterback in 1993 and 1994. "All I have to do is remind them I was 2-0 in this game and they tend to forget a lot of stuff."

Hundley already has built his reputation. His 70 touchdown passes are a UCLA career record. And he is second behind Cade McNown with 9,358 yards passing.

He also has those two wins against USC after the Bruins had beaten the Trojans only once the previous 13 seasons.

"He will be remembered as the guy who stopped SC's dominance," Cook said. "We needed a great quarterback to come along and take them on."

Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, who beat UCLA three times, said the rivalry is at its best when the teams are as equal as they are this season. UCLA enters the game ranked No. 9 with a record of 8-2. USC is No. 19 with a record of 7-3.

"When I played it wasn't really a competition," said Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner. "We were a lot better. They've improved dramatically over the years. …That makes it good."

Another victory would put Hundley eye-to-eye with Leinart in the rivalry.

McNown won four games in the series. Leinart, Matt Barkley and Carson Palmer won three for USC. No other quarterback has won more than two.

"I'm always going to have that — beating UCLA three times," Leinart said. "I can always say I never lost to UCLA. It's nice to have. To be 3-0 in a rivalry in a city like L.A., it's fun."

Hundley is eager to join in on the fun. "That would be huge," he said of potentially being a three-time winner. "It would leave an impact on the program."

Kessler will have a big say in whether it happens.

Hundley's 72.1 pass-completion percentage is best in the nation, but Kessler isn't far behind in fourth, at 70.2%. Kessler is fourth with a passing-efficiency rating of 169.0. Hundley, with a 158.0 rating, is seventh.

Hundley has passed for 2,547 yards and 17 touchdowns with four interceptions. He also has run for 564 yards and seven touchdowns. Kessler is not nearly as agile a runner, but he has passed for 2,919 yards and 29 touchdowns with only three interceptions.

"You could make a case now for him to be on the Heisman list," Leinart said of Kessler.

A big performance Saturday could give Kessler a significant bounce for next season. It has happened before.

USC's Rodney Peete was in a similar position in 1987. He had lost his first UCLA game in 1986, but led the Trojans to a 17-13 upset of Aikman's No. 5 Bruins. Peete was a Heisman candidate in 1988, and beat Aikman again. He finished second to Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders in the Heisman voting.

Kessler said a USC quarterback is judged by certain milestones.

"Did you beat UCLA? Did you beat Notre Dame? Games like that," Kessler said.

A year ago, the game was Hundley's show. He passed for 208 yards and rushed for 80 yards and two touchdowns in the Bruins' 35-14 victory at the Coliseum.

Kessler passed for 174 yards and a touchdown but was sacked six times.

USC Coach Steve Sarkisian said that rivalry games provide, "opportunities to have signature moments."

The flip side, he said, is that "somewhere in your career, if you don't [win one], that's kind of what you're remembered for."

chris.foster@latimes.com; Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

gary.klein@latimes.com; Twitter: @latimesklein

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