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Victory Bell mercenaries: How the transfer portal is shaping the USC vs. UCLA rivalry

USC quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates after the Trojans' season-opening win over Rice on Sept. 3.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates after the Trojans’ season-opening win over Rice on Sept. 3. Williams, who joined USC in the spring, says he’s treating Saturday’s showdown against UCLA “like another game.”
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)
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His UCLA counterpart may have no trouble channeling a century’s worth of bitter feelings after four crosstown confrontations, but don’t count on Caleb Williams conjuring the same sentiments ahead of his rivalry debut

Asked how much he’s absorbed of the storied rivalry this week, USC’s star quarterback shrugged.

“Haven’t learned much, to be honest with you,” Williams said. “I’ve been in other big rivalry games so far in my career. So treating it like another game.”

Of course, that’s not how Dorian Thompson-Robinson sees it, their approaches as contrasting as the cardinal and blue of the home jerseys each team will wear Saturday.

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“Obviously we hate those guys across town,” the UCLA fifth-year senior said Monday.

Although that bitterness is built-in by now for Thompson-Robinson, he’s among the few key contributors on either side of this year’s rivalry game with any experience ringing the Victory Bell.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson passes during a win over Utah on Oct. 8.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Williams, who last January briefly considered becoming a Bruin, was one of 26 transfers inked by new USC coach Lincoln Riley in the offseason, a group that also includes USC’s top two rushers, three of its top four receivers and three of its top four leading tacklers on defense. UCLA and coach Chip Kelly, meanwhile, found their leading receiver and three top pass rushers, plus a dozen more players during the last transfer window. The previous year, he brought in the Pac-12’s top running back, Zach Charbonnet.

Of the 44 projected offensive and defensive starters for Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl, 23 were at one point plucked from the portal. Together, there may not be two college football contenders more transformed by the NCAA transfer portal than USC and UCLA.

As a result, the proverbial bulletin-board material might hit a bit different this week. But it’s not like this year’s meeting needs any added stakes for either USC or UCLA. The No. 7 Trojans are still on the outskirts of the College Football Playoff conversation and a win over UCLA away from clinching a place in the Pac-12 title game. The No. 16 Bruins also still have hope of clinching their first conference crown since 1998, but will need to win out and hope for a Washington loss in the Huskies’ last two games.

That should be enough to get the blood pumping Saturday.

“If you’re not amped up for this game,” USC center Brett Neilon said, “something is wrong with you.”

When Riley and Kelly set out to raid the transfer portal and rebuild their respective teams in the off-season, certainly neither was considering the sanctity of the crosstown rivalry.

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For Riley, the portal would be an essential tool in crafting the Trojans’ sudden turnaround from a 4-8 nightmare to a 9-1 contender. For Kelly, it offered a lifeline when the coach’s future with the Bruins looked bleak. Now, each finds their teams in contention for a conference title primarily due to pieces added through the portal. And both have indicated they’ll keep mining away in the months and years to come.

How an annual parade of transfers might alter the dynamic of the crosstown rivalry remains to be seen. Kelly, for the record, doesn’t see much of a difference.

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“There’s still a lot of kids from Southern California playing in this football game,” the UCLA coach said, “so probably more than anybody else we know, so that’s kinda what we talk about.”

Riley, like his quarterback, wasn’t one for amplifying any rivalry talk or traditions this week. Instead, most USC players have said they’re treating the game just like they would any other.

“We’re not doing anything too specific with this rivalry,” Riley said. “Not to discount it in any way. We’ve acknowledged that this game, in some ways, is going to feel different. We’ve acknowledged it is a rivalry game, there’s a lot of history behind it. It’ll be a great game to play in. But past that, we’re zeroed in on what we believe is going to help us play well. That’s where our focus is going to be.”

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Still, some transfers have tried to get in on the spirit of the rivalry.

For Jake Bobo, UCLA’s leading receiver this season, Saturday should be an easy transition from his time at Duke, where the Blue Devils play their rival, North Carolina, every year for a Victory Bell.

UCLA wide receiver Jake Bobo stretches in an attempt to make a catch against Arizona on Nov. 12.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

He’s already rung the USC-UCLA version — and seems to already grasp his feelings for the Bruins bitter rival, too.

“I have a general disdain for SC just for being here for a couple months, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, you know?” Bobo said.

His counterpart at USC can relate. Jordan Addison, who transferred from Pittsburgh in the off-season, said he felt a different sort of energy in the building this week.

“Definitely something I’ve been thinking about, coming to a new town,” said Addison, who leads USC in catches (40), receiving yards (587) and receiving touchdowns (seven). “I know it’s a big game for this city. A couple of people in the room have been talking about it, so I’m starting to get the feel a little bit.”

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Hearing Thompson-Robinson’s comments about how UCLA wants “to break 60” points against USC helped bring those feelings to the surface.

“Who wouldn’t want to put 60 up on us? We’re USC,” Addison said.

The receiver wasn’t there when the Bruins did break 60 a season ago in a 62-33 runaway win over USC. But that didn’t stop him from offering a rebuttal to his rival’s quarterback comments.

“They gonna have to stand behind that,” Addison said. “He gonna have to stand on those words.”

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