UCLA vs. USC: Let’s call it a bowl game!


Lost in the knee-jerk hype about Saturday’s USC-UCLA football rivalry will be the disturbing reality that this is the autumn of our discontent.

USC will take the Coliseum field at 7-3, including a 4-3 record in a Pacific 10 Conference that it has owned for most of the decade. Scan the national rankings and you’ll find the Trojans at No. 24, their lowest such standing since 2001 and mostly a gift rating based on history.

USC will be coming off a 55-21 defeat at the hands of Stanford. Stanford’s coach, Jim Harbaugh, went for two points with a big lead near the end of the game. It was a gesture for all of the other conference teams, which, for years now, have been mostly blocking dummies for the Trojans. The 98-pound weaklings finally kicked sand in the face of the bully.


As of Sunday night, the USC website that lists game-by-game scores under opponents’ helmet logos, had not listed the Nov. 14 Stanford outcome. Probably too painful to type. (It had been added by Monday afternoon.)

UCLA will take the Coliseum field at 6-5, 3-5 in the conference, with three victories in a row following five straight defeats. The Bruins started the season with three wins and got a sniff of some national poll attention before Harbaugh kicked sand in their face too, with a 24-16 win Oct. 3.

UCLA’s mediocre season is less of a disappointment than USC’s, of course, because USC has given us such great expectations. We are spoiled. Once you get used to a hot fudge sundae, a peanut butter cookie doesn’t quite cut it.

The ring of promise at UCLA, built around the arrival of a coach with charisma and a winning track record, makes it difficult to be patient. And though Rick Neuheisel preaches patience and the slow steps of progress, Saturday’s 23-13 win over Arizona State at the Rose Bowl was hardly a Picasso.

UCLA won with two touchdowns by its defense and three field goals. If you were looking for drama or entertainment, a better choice would have been the Hollywood Bowl. Certainly, a win was music to Bruins fans, and to Neuheisel, but the reality was that Arizona State was lousy and UCLA was slightly less so.

Neuheisel, of course, sees the positives. It is his job to do so. He talks about a program that must learn to crawl before it can walk and eventually run. He talks about barriers, about how Arizona State presented one and USC presents an even higher one.

UCLA’s coach gets more of a pass for the current state of affairs because he’s in only his second season, because he’s rebuilding, because he can accurately point to signs of progress.

That luxury does not exist for USC’s Pete Carroll, who has ruled the Pac-10 for seven of his nine years and who is both blessed and cursed by high expectations. You live by the swagger and die by the swagger, and Carroll is clearly the man on the hot seat Saturday, especially with two weeks to prepare for a Bruins team that doesn’t appear to necessitate much preparation.

This dip in fortune at USC and struggle to get good again at UCLA is all happening in a season in which the big show is coming to Los Angeles. It’s our turn to host both the Rose Bowl and the Bowl Championship Series title game. We have the Granddaddy of Them All on New Year’s Day, followed six days later by a financial granddaddy. BCS stands for lots of things, including Big Corporate Selling.

It would have been nice to have some local flavor playing in either game. At season’s start, what were the odds that USC would be in neither the Rose Bowl game nor the BCS title game?

Oh, well. We can help fill the Big House in the Arroyo for Ohio State-Oregon or Oregon State. And then, Florida or Alabama taking on Texas. Nothing wrong with little old ladies from Pasadena getting a crush on Tim Tebow or learning to “Hook ‘em, Horns.”

Saturday will be our local bowl game, especially because USC and UCLA may be spending their holidays in places such as El Paso, or Boise, Idaho.

Chane Moline, a UCLA senior running back who is coming off two of the most productive games in his college career, called Saturday’s matchup against USC “the game of all games.”

Television apparently disagrees, and even sees it as an afterthought. Fox Sports has it for a 7 p.m. start on a Thanksgiving weekend Saturday. The bigger shows on the bigger networks are in the South and East, and even up at Stanford, where Harbaugh can kick sand in Notre Dame’s face in what will be probably be Charlie Weis’ un-grand finale.

Neuheisel took the microphone after the Arizona State game and implored the crowd -- OK, a half-full Rose Bowl gathering of 46,151 -- to “get your rest, be in good voice and wear the right colors next Saturday.”

Carroll will do versions of that for his team and fans this week too.

In the grand scheme of things, both are not only good coaches but also colorful evangelistic characters. If either gets tired of this football stuff, cable TV awaits.

Eventually, they’ll play the game. Neuheisel, a Rose Bowl MVP quarterback for UCLA and a winning Rose Bowl coach with Washington in 2001, will be looking for the unthinkable, the next barrier-breaker. Carroll, the second-winningest active coach in college football and the man who has put all the horses back in the Trojans, will be looking to stop the slide of 2009.

It is what it is. Compared with most USC-UCLA years, the stakes are low. The bragging rights are more like nodding rights.

The late John McKay, legendary USC coach, years ago could have just as easily been talking about this season of college football in Los Angeles when he uttered his famous line after a particularly ordinary effort by his Trojans:

“Anybody who needs a shower, take one.”