Red state, blue state

Times Staff Writer

Players and coaches from USC and UCLA spent the week patiently weighing the most pressing issues of their cross-town rivalry.

They talked about USC’s drive to a possible third consecutive Bowl Championship Series title game, the Trojans’ seven-game winning streak against the Bruins, and the recruiting battles between the schools.

They commented about UCLA’s improved defense, the Bruins’ quarterback situation and the possibility of an upset.

Today, the second-ranked Trojans and the Bruins finally will take the field at the sold-out Rose Bowl in the 76th meeting in their series.

“We’ll be ready,” UCLA center Robert Chai said.

“Everybody’s ready,” USC quarterback John David Booty said.

USC, 10-1 overall and 7-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference, has clinched a spot in the Rose Bowl by winning its fifth consecutive conference title. But the Trojans have no intention of returning to Pasadena on New Year’s Day.


Instead, USC has its sights set on a Jan. 8 BCS title-game matchup against No. 1 Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. To get there, the Trojans must get past Emerald Bowl-bound UCLA (6-5, 4-4), which is expected to pull out all the stops to end USC’s recent dominance in the series.

“Every team is beatable,” Chai said. “You never know. Look at what Oregon State did.”

Oregon State played virtually error-free against USC, caused four turnovers and also returned a punt for a touchdown in a 33-31 victory over the Trojans on Oct. 28 at Corvallis, Ore.

But the defeat, which knocked the Trojans from third to eighth in the BCS standings, only seemed to make USC stronger.

Since the loss, a young Trojans team that struggled early to put away lesser opponents has shut out Stanford and rolled past Oregon, California and Notre Dame, each performance more impressive than the last. After the victory over Notre Dame, the Trojans jumped over Michigan to No. 2 in the BCS standings and they are now determined to return to the national championship game at least a year ahead of most predictions.

“I don’t think we are playing beyond our capabilities. I don’t think we are playing great,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “I think we are playing like we are capable of playing, and when we do that we are hard to beat.”

UCLA has been unable to defeat the Trojans since 1998. The closest the Bruins came since Carroll took over in 2001 was two years ago at the Rose Bowl. The Trojans, looking ahead to their first BCS title-game appearance, held on for a 29-24 victory that was not decided until the final minute.

Last season, USC routed the Bruins, 66-19, at the Coliseum.

That kind of outburst is not expected today because of a vastly improved UCLA defense that is directed by first-year coordinator DeWayne Walker, who coached under Carroll with the New England Patriots and also at USC.

“Their style is different, their attitude is different and their team is able to play off of their defense,” Carroll said. “It’s the first time in the last few years it’s been like that.”

UCLA’s defensive line, which was manhandled by USC last year, is now the strength of a unit that gives up 18.7 points and 93 yards rushing a game. Ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis have combined for 24 sacks.

The Bruins will try to neutralize a USC offense that features Booty, who has thrown for 25 touchdowns with eight interceptions, freshman running back C.J. Gable, who rushed for a career-best 107 yards last week against Notre Dame, and receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, perhaps the nation’s best receiving tandem.

“We feel like we’re going to be the best secondary that they’ve seen,” UCLA cornerback Trey Brown said. “It’s one thing to say it, but we have to go out there and prove it.”

UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell says he is confident that the Bruins defense will continue to play the way it did in consecutive victories over Oregon State and Arizona State, when the Bruins gave up a total of 19 points.

“This will be our best defense playing against them in three years, which is a good thing,” Dorrell said. “But offensively, we also have to do our part to get some points on the board.”

Dorrell is putting the ball in the hands of sophomore quarterback Patrick Cowan, who took over for injured left-hander Ben Olson during the fifth game. Cowan has passed for nine touchdowns with seven interceptions. Dorrell is not expected to delay turning to Olson if Cowan is ineffective.

USC’s defense, which neutralized Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn last week, has prepared for either Cowan or Olson.

“We basically just watch the offense,” USC cornerback Terrell Thomas said. “We know what we’re going to get out of both.”


Times staff writer Lonnie White contributed to this report.


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Online poll

More than 3,400 people logged on to this week to cast their votes on who will win today’s USC-UCLA showdown, and in what fashion. The results, as of 11:15 p.m. Friday:

56.1% - Trojans. No-brainer. More talent + more incentive = another mauling.

6.9% - Bruins. The team’s had time to prepare and will dominate their “looking-ahead” rivals.

16.5% - USC will show championship form to barely defeat an inspired Bruins squad.

20.5% - UCLA will rekindle last year’s comeback spirit and eke by, derailing the Trojans.


Los Angeles Times