Times staff writer Chris Foster examines how the UCLA and USC football teams match up in advance of Saturday’s game at the Coliseum that will decide the Pac-12 Conference South Division champion:
UCLA run game vs. USC run defense
Running back Paul Perkins lacks much of a national profile, but he’s well known inside the Pac-12. He has 1,180 yards rushing, giving him back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons — something only four UCLA players have accomplished.
Perkins typically grinds out gains in five- or six-yard chunks, but he can also go 80.
Quarterback Josh Rosen is not the running threat his predecessor, Brett Hundley, was, but you can’t go to sleep on him. Rosen demonstrated that with a 37-yard scramble for a touchdown in the final minutes against Washington State.
UCLA averages 190.2 yards rushing per game. USC gives up 137.4 yards rushing per game, but the Trojans are now trying to fill holes created by injuries.
Smith was leading USC in tackles and had three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown in an upset over then-undefeated and third-ranked Utah.
The loss of Smith and Dawson was exposed by Oregon last week. The Ducks had 171 yards rushing, 149 by running back Royce Freeman.
The Trojans had allowed an average of 83.8 yards rushing in winning their four previous games.
UCLA passing vs. USC secondary
Anyone who is still calling Rosen a freshman is merely being overly literal.
Rosen has pushed, pulled and prodded UCLA to wins in four of the last five games, and now has the Bruins on the verge of qualifying to play in the Pac-12 title game. He has five 300-yard passing games and has not had a pass intercepted in his last 218 throws, a school record.
Rosen has passed for 3,122 yards and 19 touchdowns.
UCLA’s offensive line, anchored by center Jake Brendel, has allowed only 11 sacks. The Bruins probably will be without left tackle Conor McDermott, who has a knee injury.
USC was torched by Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who passed for 407 yards and six touchdowns — the most scoring passes ever against the Trojans in one game.
The Trojans have 33 sacks, but Adams’ elusiveness was a problem.
USC’s secondary is young, but has two physically gifted cornerbacks in sophomore Adoree’ Jackson and freshman Iman Marshall. Jackson is a multiple-threat player is also used as a receiver and return specialist. Marshall has the tools to develop into a quality cover man, but is experiencing on-the-job training.
Linebacker Su’a Cravens is USC’s top defender, effective on the rush, against the run and also in coverage. UCLA needs to be aware of his location at all times.
USC run game vs. UCLA defense
USC isn’t exactly Tailback U anymore, but the Trojans do have a formidable group this season.
Justin Davis and Ronald Jones III are difficult to contain and, in the open field, nearly impossible to catch. Jones, a freshman, has rushed for 827 yards and seven touchdowns. Davis has 646 yards and five touchdowns.
Tre Madden, at 6 feet 1, 225 pounds, is bigger and has more power to his game. He has rushed for 441 yards and five touchdowns, but has missed the last three games because of a bruised bone in his knee.
Davis, Jones and Madden combine to average 6.1 yards per carry.
UCLA’s run defense has mostly had an open-door policy. The Bruins were thrown into chaos after linebacker Myles Jack, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau were lost to season-ending injuries. What followed was a stampede.
Arizona had 353 yards rushing, Stanford 310, Colorado 242 and Arizona State 192. Utah had 197 yards rushing last week even without 1,000-yard rusher Devontae Booker, who missed the game because of a knee injury.
Jayon Brown, an undersized linebacker, has stepped up in recent weeks and UCLA could have linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea back from an ankle injury. But the key will be how USC handles nose tackle Kenny Clark, who is among best defensive linemen in the Pac-12.
USC passing vs. UCLA secondary
USC quarterback Cody Kessler was mentioned as a Heisman Trophy contender before the season began. That talk evaporated quickly.
Kessler has passed for 2,953 yards and 25 touchdowns — well off the pace that saw him pass for 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns last season. He’s had six passes intercepted after being picked off five times all of last season.
Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster seems indestructible. He broke a hand and didn’t miss a game. He suffered an ankle injury against Oregon and returned to the game.
Along the line, the Trojans have been pliable, giving up 30 sacks. Injuries have left Khaliel Rodgers as USC’s third starting center this season.
UCLA’s pass rush has picked up in the last month. The Bruins have 26 sacks, 17 coming in the last five games. But defensive linemen Takkarist McKinley and Matt Dickerson both left practice during in recent days with undisclosed injuries. They are likely play, but may not be at 100%.
UCLA’s secondary has made big plays — and given them up. Twice, opposing teams completed touchdown passes on plays UCLA defensive backs were called for pass interference.
John Johnson practiced this week. He was evolving into a solid lock-down corner before he was injured.
UCLA has an advantage in place kicking. Ka’imi Fairbairn has scored 100 points four consecutive seasons and broke former UCLA kicker John Lee’s Pac-12 career scoring record. He has made 20 of 22 field goals this season, including a school-record 60-yard kick against California.
USC may need to rely on second-stringer Matt Boermeester, whose father played for UCLA. Trojans starter Alex Wood missed last week’s game because of concussion symptoms.
USC has an advantage in punt returns because of Adoree’ Jackson’s ability to break big plays.
UCLA may kick away from Jackson, sacrificing a little field position on the front end so it doesn’t get burned by a long return.
Jackson also returns kickoffs, but those should be less a problem for UCLA because Fairbairn is likely to kick the ball in or through the end zone.
UCLA’s Jim Mora has a record of 3-0 against USC, and even proclaimed that the Bruins “owned this town” after a victory over the Trojans at the Coliseum two years ago.
In the 13 seasons leading up to Mora, UCLA had a record of 81-82. Mora’s teams are 37-14, and the Bruins are 32-1 when leading at halftime.
Clay Helton has done a commendable job in his second tour of duty as USC’s interim coach. Before taking over for the fired Steve Sarkisian this season, he guided the Trojans to victory in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl.
There was a growing movement for Helton to retain the job after he guided the Trojans to four consecutive victories to keep them in the Pac-12 South race. That was blunted when USC was buried by Oregon, 48-28, last week.
Helton’s hopes of keeping the job now hinge on winning a Pac-12 title, and he needs to defeat UCLA to even reach that game.
UCLA 35, USC 21