When UCLA head coach Jim Mora was hired in 2012, he knew that it would be an uphill battle to regain respect not only in the Pac-12 conference, but in Los Angeles as well.
Hired to replace Rick Neuheisel — a coach whose record through 49 games from 2008-2011 was just .429 with a trip to just one bowl game — Mora knew that he’d be facing several challenges. But what he didn’t know was that he’d face three new head coaches at rival University of Southern California, in as many years.
In his first year as the Bruins’ head coach, Mora led his team to a first place standing in the Pac-12 South, where it would lose to Oregon in the conference title game. Despite a Holiday Bowl loss to Baylor, UCLA has held on to its rank, primarily by beating USC the past two years.
In Mora’s time at UCLA, he’s faced Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, and now Steve Sarkisian. However, Mora faced Sarkisian when he was the head coach at Washington. It’s not unfamiliar territory, but the stakes have dramatically increased.
USC junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor was named as a semifinalist for the coveted Biletnikoff Award. And in a Q&A on Monday via USC Athletics, Sarkisian attributed Agholor’s production in the last month to quarterback Cody Kessler’s evolution and understanding of the offense.
“We’re doing a better job of moving Nelson around where he’s at different positions on the field. And I think Nelson is growing.” Said Sarkisian. “Coming out of the Utah game we were really critical of him. Coach (Tee) Martin was really hard on him… and he’s really taken it to another level. It’s a byproduct of his preparation and the way he practices.”
When asked about the run game, Sarkisian discussed how the problems this season weren’t a simple fix. Sark stated the Trojans were close to fixing the issues, but they’ll need to block better, especially facing a UCLA defensive line who has allowed an average of 4.12 rushing yards per down this season. If controlling the clock is in the game plan, chipping away on short-yardage gains or short screens will match up evenly to the Bruins, as USC averages 4.04-yards per rush.
As Kessler is finding his rhythm with USC receivers this season, I doubt we’ll see a rushing attack this Saturday at the Rose Bowl. The junior quarterback has thrown for 2,919 yards, 29 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. This includes an insane performance against Colorado, where he threw seven touchdown passes to seal a 56-28 win over the Buffaloes, setting a school record in the process.
The keys to slowing down UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley includes what Sarkisian called “a three-level approach.” He’s such an explosive quarterback who finds ways to make plays. He has thrown for 2,547 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions, plus seven rushing touchdowns this season.
Zone reads, quarterback draw plays, sneaks, and scrambles will be tough to defend, but with USC sophomore Su’a Cravens coming off his best game of the year against Cal with 10 tackles and a sack, the momentum could provide a challenge to Hundley.
USC defenders are going to have to play fast and physical, while being aggressive in the secondary. They must win the one-on-one matchups if they are planning on putting up a convincing enough win to move up in the playoff rankings, and seal up the Pac-12 South.
The 7-3 Trojans are currently ranked No. 19 in the College Playoff poll, and sit atop the Pac-12 South standings at 6-2. The Bruins are No. 9 in the rankings, and are currently No. 2 in the Pac-12 South with an 8-2 record and 5-2 in Pac-12 contests.
*Section Photo credit to Jeff Gross, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Stephen Dunn, Getty Images.