Sparked by a 96-yard punt return by Craig Bragg, UCLA nearly upset USC in 2004 at the Rose Bowl. This year, UCLA is looking for even better results from a unit that has been solid all season. In contrast, the Trojans have had more than their share of breakdowns by their special teams over the last two seasons. Times staff writer Lonnie White sizes up the competition:
In UCLA’s 24-12 victory over Arizona State on Nov. 18, a turning point came when Coach Karl Dorrell called for a fake punt with the Bruins ahead, 14-12, in the third quarter.
On fourth and six from the UCLA 27, reserve fullback Danny Nelson took a short snap and ran 27 yards for a first down to help set up a 24-yard field goal by Justin Medlock.
Risky? Yes — and exactly the type of special teams play that the underdog Bruins may try against the Trojans. Fake punts, on-side kicks, reverses, aggressive kick-block schemes, USC could see any or all of the above.
USC has given up one punt return for a touchdown this season and had one punt blocked last week in its victory over Notre Dame. Last season, the Trojans gave up two touchdowns on punt returns and had a punt blocked. UCLA, which has blocked four kicks this season — including two by Will Peddie — would be buoyed if it can find a way to force the Trojans into some mistakes.
UCLA’s return units have been sound though not spectacular. Ryan Graves has been steady on punt returns since taking over for injured Terrence Austin near midseason. However, Austin is healthy again and will be ready if needed. His 13.8 yards-per-return average leads the team.
Derrick Williams and Alterraun Verner handle kickoff return duties for UCLA. Although the Bruins have not had any touchdown returns, they’ve come close on a couple of occasions.
Whether UCLA will have a chance at returning a kickoff will be up to USC kickoff specialist Troy Van Blarcom, who consistently produced touchbacks early in the season. In recent weeks, however, Van Blarcom’s kickoffs have been shorter and the Trojans’ kickoff coverage has proven sound, giving up an average of 18.9 yards per return.
Both teams have strong kickers and improving punters. Medlock, a first-team All-Pacific 10 Conference selection, has made 24 of 28 field-goal tries, including a stretch of 14 in a row. He has six field goals from 50 yards or farther in his career.
USC junior Mario Danelo is 13 for 14 on field-goal attempts this season. In his career, he has made 24 of 26 field-goal tries and is 124 for 129 on point-after kicks. From distance, the Trojans have sophomore David Buehler, who made a momentum-changing 49-yard field goal against California in his only attempt of the season.
UCLA sophomore Aaron Perez has averaged 41.63 yards per punt this season but had a three-game stretch in October when he averaged 44.93 yards in 15 punts. He can’t afford to give USC return specialist Desmond Reed much room to work.
The only costly time Perez out-kicked his coverage this season, California’s DeSean Jackson returned it 72 yards for a touchdown. That’s a scenario USC has worked hard to avoid with sophomore walk-on Greg Woidneck, who has averaged 38.5 yards per punt.
Since giving up a touchdown return at Oregon State, the Trojans have been content to kick the ball out of bounds or high and short. Expect USC to continue with this strategy, especially if Austin is used as a returner by the Bruins.
Final call: Don’t count USC out from using a trick play on special teams. Just ask Washington, which gave up a 20-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Michael McDonald to Steve Smith on a fake field goal.