USC vs. UCLA matchups: Kedon Slovis faces a much-improved Bruins defense

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis drops back to pass against the Bruins.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis passed for 515 yards and four touchdowns in a win over UCLA on Nov. 23, 2019, at the Coliseum.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Breaking down how No. 15 USC (4-0) and UCLA (3-2) match up heading into Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl at 4:30 p.m. (TV: ABC; Radio: 570, 790)

Marquee matchup

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis vs. UCLA pass defense. As a freshman, Slovis unleashed fury on UCLA in his first iteration of the crosstown rivalry. His jaw-dropping 515-yard performance last season remains a career high, while his four scores were just surpassed for the first time last week. He’s unlikely to have such ample time to pick UCLA apart in his second meeting. With 18 sacks through five games, a resurgent Bruins defense boasts the conference’s best pass rush. Linebacker Caleb Johnson and defensive end Osa Odighizuwa have been a force, combining for 8 1/2 sacks — a total that, on its own, surpasses seven other Pac-12 teams. That’s a difficult assignment for a USC offensive line that’s just returning to full strength after a two-week stint in coronavirus-related isolation. But even if Slovis does get the time to operate, he’ll have to be sharp against a secondary that’s much improved from 2019, when it finished 129th out of 130 in pass yards allowed per game. Standout safety Quentin Lake is healthy for this year’s game, while his counterpart, Stephan Blaylock, has come into his own in 2020 and ranks in the top five in the Pac-12 in tackles (34).

Getting offensive

USC (424.5 ypg, 33.3 ppg): The Trojans’ offense will hinge on Slovis’ right arm, but additional help from his run game would go a long way in keeping UCLA’s defense off-balance. Of course, that’s easier said than done for a USC rushing attack that managed five total yards last week, its fewest since Sept. 2018. Might the Trojans have something new up their sleeve to turn the tide in that department? None of their coaches seem all that concerned about a rushing offense that ranks worst in the Pac-12 and 18th-worst in the nation in yards per game. It helps to have an explosive passing attack to lean on, with four receivers capable of going off at any moment. Last week, it was Amon-ra St. Brown, who scored four times in the first quarter.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scrambles during a game against Arizona State on Dec. 5, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson may give the USC defense some problems with his running ability.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

UCLA (430.6 ypg, 32.6 ppg): Lost in the fawning over Slovis’ performance last season was a mostly stellar showing from UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns. He’s unlikely to air it out so much this time, with UCLA’s run game rolling. Led by senior Demetric Felton Jr., the Bruins’ two-headed backfield is the polar opposite of its rival, ranking 16th in the nation in rushing yards per game (227.6). Felton was limited last week by an unspecified injury, but has been one of the Pac-12’s best all-around weapons when healthy, while change-of-pace back Brittain Brown is averaging better than 6.3 yards per carry. With USC struggling to establish the run, UCLA would be wise to lean on Felton and Brown to control the ball, while Thompson-Robinson creates with his legs when necessary. The quarterback has at least 49 rushing yards and a touchdown in every game he’s played.

Getting defensive

USC (356.5 ypg, 21.8 ppg): Todd Orlando’s revamped defense is finally coming into its own. Forced to operate without its top two inside linebackers the last few weeks, USC’s defensive front has excelled anyway. The Trojans’ last two opponents were held to 3.34 yards per rush, a far cry from the 5.33 yards per carry USC allowed in its first two outings. The secondary has arguably been even better over that same stretch, forcing five interceptions and yielding just two touchdowns. Safety Talanoa Hufanga has again proven to be the steadying hand of that group, leading the team in tackles (33). The recent history of USC’s defense against dual-threat quarterbacks isn’t great, raising some concern about how it might handle Thompson-Robinson. But the emergence of redshirt junior defensive end Nick Figueroa, who had three sacks last week, should help create pressure.

The athletic directors at USC and UCLA worked together to help salvage a football season for the Pac-12. Their teams meet Saturday.

Dec. 10, 2020

UCLA (373 ypg, 24.8 ppg): There’s no more better mark of UCLA’s massive leap forward this season than the performance of its front seven in defensive backs coach Brian Norwood’s 4-2-5 scheme. The Bruins are allowing 10 fewer points and nearly 80 fewer yards per game. After all of UCLA’s linebackers graduated, Caleb Johnson, a transfer from Texas, has been a revelation this season. But it’s the defensive line that’s been the biggest surprise, thanks to a former Trojans assistant. Johnny Nansen was fired as USC’s linebackers coach after last season. Now at UCLA, he’s overseen a renaissance on the defensive line. Odighizuwa especially has taken a step forward under his tutelage, with more sacks (four) than he had in 2019. But it’ll be the secondary that’s tested most Saturday. Oregon is the only team to find serious success against UCLA’s pass defense, with 334 yards and three scores. But Lake was out of the lineup in that game, and since, the Bruins have allowed just one touchdown, while intercepting three passes.

Something special

Both USC and UCLA will trot out freshman kickers, but neither USC’s Parker Lewis, nor Nicholas Barr-Mira has performed like this is their first season. Lewis leads the Pac-12 with seven field goals in five games, while Barr-Mira has yet to miss a field goal on three attempts. The two have combined to make 36 of 37 extra points.

Of note

For USC wideout Tyler Vaughns, his final game in the crosstown rivalry will be special for a different reason. His brother JonJon Vaughns is a freshman defensive back for the Bruins.


The UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans will play in an empty Rose Bowl on Saturday, with both coaches hoping to continue with the progress their teams have made this season.

Dec. 11, 2020

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.