Where’s the buzz? USC has it and UCLA doesn’t heading into spring football showcases

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson hurdles high for a touchdown in UCLA's 62-33 win over USC last fall.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson hurdles high for a touchdown in UCLA’s 62-33 win over USC last fall, but the Trojans have more buzz this spring after hiring coach Lincoln Riley.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The cross-town rivals will hold their spring showcases Saturday.

One intends to run its event like a practice, the other says it’s going to play a half of football.

Both showcases will be held a short walk from campus dorms.

One will be staged at a raggedy track stadium, the other at a renovated Coliseum.


One will be televised only on the Pac-12 Network. The other will be available to 77.4 million households nationwide as the only spring game broadcast by ESPN.

Five months after absorbing a 62-33 beatdown by its arch nemesis, USC appears to have scored a runaway victory over UCLA in exposure and excitement.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson wants to leave a lasting legacy in Westwood, and he did just that, accounting for six touchdowns in UCLA’s 62-33 win over USC.

The Trojans continue to bask in the buzz of new coach Lincoln Riley, who has captured a city’s imagination before winning his first game.

“There’s a lot of energy around this program right now, a lot of excitement,” Riley said recently. “I think we said it from the opening press conference: It takes everybody.”

Across town, Chip Kelly remains focused on having a really good Saturday. The UCLA coach’s stranglehold on minutiae earned him a new four-year, $22-million contract in January after having gone 18-25 in his first four seasons at the school.

Kelly’s tenure is a cautionary tale involving outsized expectations. He arrived at UCLA in late 2017 as the hottest college coach on the market despite some NFL stumbles after posting a 46-7 record in four seasons at Oregon.

Riley arrived at USC late last year as the hottest college coach not known to be on the market after having negotiated a sneaky exit from Oklahoma, where he went 55-10 in five seasons, including two victories over Kelly’s Bruins.

Kelly has shown that history doesn’t always repeat itself. He needed four seasons just to nudge his team above .500, the Bruins finishing 8-4 in 2021 after withdrawing from the Holiday Bowl in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.

In Lincoln Riley’s first practice as USC head coach, the energy is high, the tempo is up and he is excited, writes columnist Dylan Hernández.

One significant difference between Kelly and Riley is that the former has never generated much of a frenzy at his current post. In Kelly’s first game at UCLA, the Bruins drew 54,116 at the Rose Bowl, nearly 40,000 under capacity … and lost to Cincinnati. They went on to set a record low for average attendance in 2019 and have not come close to selling out a single home game.

USC officials won’t venture a guess for attendance at their spring showcase Saturday. Riley acknowledged his role as a salesman for a program that went 4-8 last season while also implying that the Trojans were well on the way to filling the Coliseum once more.

“People, as you learn, particularly in this town, they want to support winners,” Riley said. “They want to support excellence. They want to support success. We understand that. We don’t shy away from that. … If you can’t get excited right now about what’s happened to this point, I don’t know if there are magic words to get that done.”

Having worked as an ESPN analyst during the 2017 season, Kelly understands the allure of the publicity his Bruins enjoyed last fall while being featured on the network’s “College GameDay.” But he doesn’t know whether snagging a springtime spot on national television qualifies.

“Exposure is who watches it,” Kelly said, “so I don’t know how many people are watching a spring game, so I couldn’t tell you yea or nay on that.”

UCLA’s showcase should be considered an upgrade over last season, when the team completed a practice at Spaulding Field without fans. The Bruins agreed to hold this year’s showcase at Drake Stadium at the request of the Pac-12 Network, with three spring practices remaining.

The team is expected to complete individual and situational work, giving Kelly a chance to dictate what it can accomplish.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly understands the need to build on last season’s 8-4 mark. He hopes Dorian Thompson-Robinson will help him achieve that goal.

“Sometimes if you just scrimmage, and the ball doesn’t get to the red zone,” Kelly said, “then you’re not getting red-zone [work], so we’ll specifically move the ball situationally to different spots on the field and then try to get in some different situations whether it be third down — all the things in football that are really the difference between winning and losing, we’ve been emphasizing through the whole spring, so it’s just an opportunity for us to do that.”

Kelly said an autograph session afterward should allow players to engage with fans and “get back to normalcy” after two years of pandemic disruptions. Across town, the Trojans will try to get back to their own sort of normalcy, drawing a massive crowd and a nation’s curiosity while reemerging as the top Saturday story in town.

Times staff writer Ryan Kartje contributed to this report.