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Why Saturday's rivalry game means everything to UCLA, not so much for USC

As UCLA’s players filed off the field and into the locker room underneath the Rose Bowl a week ago, the fans sent them away with a loud demand. Or maybe it was more of a wish: “Beat SC!”

A few hours earlier, as USC’s players celebrated winning the Pac-12 Conference South division outside the visitors’ locker room in Boulder, Colo., everyone also wanted to know about a game in the Trojans’ future.

The Pac-12 championship game, two weeks ahead.

Reporters asked about the championship game. Players talked about the championship game. Tight end Tyler Petite had to issue this reminder during interviews: "I think a lot of people are forgetting that we do have one more game next week."

UCLA (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) and No. 11 USC (9-2, 7-1) approach Saturday’s rivalry game at the Coliseum from very different places.

The Bruins will be playing for everything: bowl eligibility, a chance to salvage a lost season and maybe even head coach Jim Mora’s job. The Trojans will be playing for next to nothing, other than avoiding the year-long agony that comes with losing to UCLA.

USC’s players said that was enough. "What do you think, we're going to come out flat?” safety Chris Hawkins said. “Nah, that's not gonna happen."

On paper, USC holds the advantage in perhaps every position but one, quarterback, where UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold are both considered among the best in the country.

The Bruins must win one of their final two regular-season games to achieve bowl eligibility. UCLA has been maligned — particularly as a team that can’t run and can’t stop the run — but defeating USC would be a powerful salve.

USC also has endured a topsy turvy season, but unlike UCLA it has won consistently. The Trojans still have long-shot dreams of making the College Football Playoff. But absent that slim hope, Saturday’s game likely will have no impact on USC’s bowl destination. Win or lose, USC will play for the Pac-12 title on Dec. 1 at Levi’s Stadium with a New Year’s Six bowl game on the line.

“I don't know how they feel,” Mora said of the Trojans. “I mean, they've already clinched the Pac-12 South; they rank 11th in the country. You know, we're fighting through injuries, we're scrambling just to get a win. So it's a little bit different mindset.”

UCLA could be playing for Mora’s job. A week ago, an airplane circled the Rose Bowl towing a banner calling for Mora's dismissal.

“We’re juiced up, energized,” Rosen said. “After those banners we got some juice to kind of get our coach’s back.”

Saturday will be the first time — and likely the only time — that Rosen and Darnold will play against each other as amateurs. The two have orbited each other like twin suns of the same star system. They have faced off only during seven-on-seven competition in high school. When Rosen was a freshman at UCLA, Darnold sat at USC as a redshirt. When Darnold zoomed to prominence last season, Rosen sat with an injury. Finally, on Saturday, they will duel as starters on the same field.

The players are not especially close but are on friendly terms. It was suggested to Darnold this week that he and Rosen could be linked for their entire careers.

"That's pretty deep," Darnold replied. He said he didn't spend much time pondering the possibility, but allowed that if the two beach-city quarterbacks did end up connected throughout long careers, "That'd be sweet."

On Saturday, Rosen may be the more important passer. UCLA must score a lot to win. UCLA’s run defense ranks last in college football. The Bruins are on pace to be the first Power Five conference team in 15 years to give up more than 300 rushing yards per game; UCLA’s defense allows 302.

Ronald Jones II, USC’s top running back, has rushed for 552 yards over the past three games. Still, offensive coordinator Tee Martin said USC is not jumping to any conclusions.

"No matter what's on tape when you play them, you can throw the record out, you can throw how they played against everybody else out,” he said. “It's gonna be a ballgame."

And the 300 rushing yards per game? Martin laughed.

“That's against other people,” he said.

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this article.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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