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UCLA and USC paths were filled with rocks but still could be strewn with roses

UCLA and USC paths were filled with rocks but still could be strewn with roses
USC cornerback Adoree' Jackson breaks up a pass intended for UCLA receiver Devin Fuller during the rivalry game last season. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles' two major college football teams are right where their fans hoped they would be, playing the final game of the regular season still in contention for a Pac-12 Conference championship.

The trip getting there? That didn't go anywhere near according to plan.

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A few preseason prognostications had USC contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff. An experienced quarterback surrounded by marquee talent was expected to carry the Trojans to the Pac-12 title and maybe more under second-year coach Steve Sarkisian.

UCLA, with a precocious freshman quarterback but an experienced and star-studded defense, was thought to be ready to achieve national prominence under fourth-year Coach Jim Mora.

USC's season nearly imploded when Sarkisian was fired before midseason and Clay Helton took over as interim coach.

UCLA was ranked seventh four games into the season and then lost to unranked Arizona State and suffered its annual stumble against Stanford.

USC has four losses, UCLA three.

And yet . . .

Here they are, playing for the Pac-12 South Division title Saturday at the Coliseum.

The winner of the 85th game between the crosstown rivals plays Stanford on Dec. 5 for the conference title and a spot in the Rose Bowl.

USC has not played on New Year's Day in Pasadena since the 2008 season, UCLA since 1998.

If USC hopes to return, the Trojans first must do something that hasn't happened since Mora arrived on the scene in 2012: Defeat the Bruins.

USC's 50-0 rout of Rick Neuheisel-coached UCLA at the Coliseum in 2011 earned the Trojans bragging rights, but NCAA sanctions prohibited them from playing for the Pac-12 title.

Helton noted this week that fifth-year seniors such as quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Tre Madden and defensive lineman Antwaun Woods were part of the 2011 team that was denied.

"This is their opportunity," Helton said, "and we're doing everything we can to make this happen."

A victory also would keep alive Helton's bid to remove the interim tag on the job he has held for seven weeks. He has the support of the players, but after last week's 20-point loss at Oregon, victories over the Bruins and Stanford are probably required to give him any real shot at the permanent position.

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"He's kept us on point," USC senior fullback Jahleel Pinner said of Helton. "Guys haven't splintered. We know this team can be great and we still have the chance to do what we wanted to do at the beginning of the season."

Mora offers no reason why the Bruins have dominated the series during his tenure.

"There has been no common thread," he said.

UCLA knocked around the Trojans in each of the last three years, including last season's 38-20 victory at the Rose Bowl.

If it happens again, USC can book plans for another second-tier bowl game.

"I truly believe we have become a more physical team over the last six games," Helton said.

UCLA is led by freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, whose play helped the Bruins overcome the loss of defensive stars Myles Jack, Eddie Vanderdoes and Fabian Moreau.

Rosen is formidable — "He doesn't look like a freshman," said Justin Wilcox, USC's defensive coordinator. But after Oregon's Vernon Adams Jr. used his mobility to burn them for a school-record six touchdown passes last week, USC players sounded as if they were looking forward to facing the former Bellflower St. John Bosco High standout.

"We don't have to worry as much as far as the scrambling aspect," USC linebacker Su'a Cravens said. "We've just got to put pressure on him, collapse the pocket and, hopefully, he makes a mistake."

UCLA must neutralize a Kessler-led USC offense that under Helton has shown a commitment to the running game and big-play capability.

"They are set up to run and come straight at you," said Kenny Clark, UCLA's nose tackle.

The Bruins are in familiar territory.

UCLA advanced to the Pac-12 title game under Mora in 2012. Their bid to repeat in 2013 ended with a late-season loss to Arizona State. Last season, a victory over Stanford in the final regular-season game would have put them in the title game.

"You want to be able to get over the hump," UCLA senior linebacker Aaron Wallace said. "It's a little frustrating when you get in that position and fall just a little short. . . . We have had a couple stumbles, but thankfully we're still in a position to achieve that goal."

Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.

Twitter: @latimesklein

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