The oddsmakers consider it among the longest of longshots.
So do most college football fans, even those who went to school in Westwood.
But UCLA players today will draw inspiration from the not-so-distant past when they play fifth-ranked USC in the 78th game in the cross-town rivalry.
Two years ago, UCLA upset the Trojans, 13-9, at the Rose Bowl.
If the Bruins could do it then, receiver Marcus Everett reasons, “We can do it now.”
Perhaps. Not likely. But . . .
Few gave UCLA much of a chance on Dec. 2, 2006. The Bruins, under embattled coach Karl Dorrell, were 13 1/2 -point underdogs in their home stadium against a USC team that was poised to clinch a third consecutive Bowl Championship Series title-game appearance.
That was before Bruins quarterback Patrick Cowan made like Vince Young in the first quarter, scrambling for long gains and scoring a touchdown. Before defensive end Bruce Davis beat USC linemen and terrorized quarterback John David Booty. And before Bruins linebacker Eric McNeal leaped, tipped a pass and cradled the ball for an interception that clinched the victory.
Today, USC is a 33-point favorite against first-year Coach Rick Neuheisel’s Bruins. The Trojans, already assured of at least a share of their seventh consecutive Pacific 10 Conference title, can win it outright and lock up a berth in the Rose Bowl game against Penn State.
Most consider a USC victory a foregone conclusion. Some predict the Trojans will register their season’s fourth shutout.
“Doesn’t matter,” Trojans safety Kevin Ellison says. “That’s totally the wrong way to think about it because that will come back and bite us.”
USC Coach Pete Carroll saw it happen against UCLA two years ago. And against Stanford, a 42-point underdog, last season. And at Oregon State in September.
“We have great respect for what they’re doing over there and what they’re capable of doing,” Carroll says of the Bruins, “and know they have it in them to put together a game and knock us off.”
Of course, the Trojans said the same thing two years ago. Then they went out and lost to UCLA for the only time in seven games against the Bruins under Carroll.
Bruins defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, a former Carroll assistant in the NFL and at USC, devised a scheme that stymied the Trojans and enabled the Bruins to win with Cowan’s touchdown and two field goals.
Now the Bruins staff also includes Norm Chow, the venerable offensive coordinator who helped USC win two national titles before being nudged to the NFL in 2005 by Carroll’s planned reorganization of his staff.
With UCLA’s offense struggling, the key matchup appears to be between Walker and USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who replaced Chow and is expected to be introduced as Washington’s new head coach early next week.
Sarkisian hasn’t forgotten the Trojans’ missteps two years ago, when he shared coordinator responsibilities with Lane Kiffin: they rushed for only 55 yards, converted only six of 17 third downs, were flagged for nine penalties.
“You can’t shoot yourself in the foot,” he says. “We need to come ready to play.”
UCLA, which lost to Arizona State last week, faces a different set of circumstances than it encountered before facing the Trojans in 2006.
UCLA had an open date before the rivalry game, giving Walker extra time to study personnel and schemes.
“That made a big difference,” he says.
The 2006 Bruins also featured defensive ends Bruce Davis and Justin Hickman, linebacker Christian Taylor and a veteran secondary that included Chris Horton.
“You had some bullets,” Walker says.
But the current Bruins do see some similarities.
This defense is led by two tough linemen -- tackles Brigham Harwell and Brian Price -- and features an outstanding linebacker in Reggie Carter. A strong secondary has helped the Bruins rank second nationally in pass defense.
USC offensive lineman Jeff Byers missed the 2006 game because of injury, but he recalls the mayhem Davis and Hickman created and sees the same potential in Harwell and Price.
“We have to do everything right because, if not, these two big guys are going to control the game,” Byers says.
Harwell senses the possibilities.
In 2006, the Bruins went into the USC game coming off strong defensive efforts against Oregon State and Arizona State.
The defense enters today’s game having not given up a touchdown in seven quarters.
“It’s deja vu,” Harwell says. “It’s crazy to see how things are happening the same way.”
But could they end up the same? Will it be 13-9 all over again?
“That game, we were just fortunate enough to keep them out of the end zone,” Walker says. “If we can do that again, we can make things interesting.”
Times staff writers David Wharton and Mark Medina contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
There were 1,981 responses to the question: Who will win the USC-UCLA football game on Saturday? The results:
USC by at least 2 touchdowns
USC by at least a touchdown
USC by a field goal
UCLA by a field goal
UCLA by at least a touchdown
UCLA by at least 2 touchdowns
To take part in the next online poll, go to latimes.com/sports
for Ball State
No. 12 Cardinals suffer their first loss, falling to Buffalo in MAC title game. PAGE 10
busters . . . almost
Big 12, SEC games nearly a playoff in themselves, Chris Dufresne writes. PAGE 10
Breaking it down
A look at the key issues in USC-UCLA game. PAGE 11
NO. 5 USC (10-1)
VS. UCLA (4-7)
Today at the Rose Bowl, 1:30 p.m., Channel 7
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