College Football Playoff stakes may be off the table when rivals Southern California and UCLA meet Saturday in Pasadena, Calif.
The No. 16-ranked Bruins still have Pac-12 Conference championship aspirations when they host the No. 7 Trojans.
UCLA (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) stumbled out of realistic playoff contention with its 34-28 loss to Arizona last week. The Bruins surrendered 315 passing yards to Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura.
The task remains difficult this week when the Bruins face Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams. The Oklahoma transfer immediately thrust himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation at the beginning of the season and has not relented en route to recording 3,010 passing yards with 31 touchdowns, and another 283 yards on the ground and six rushing scores.
Despite Williams’ ability to turn broken plays into positive gains, UCLA coach Chip Kelly said defending the USC quarterback requires a different approach than against de Laura.
“They’re two different people. You don’t compare Caleb to Jayden,” Kelly said at Monday’s media availability. “(USC coach Lincoln Riley) runs a different scheme than (the one Arizona coach Jedd Fisch) runs, so our sole focus now is … (out defense) for what we’re going to do against USC.”
Slowing USC has been a difficult proposition for most opponents this season.
USC (9-1, 7-1) ranks third in the nation at 42.4 points per game. Despite a sluggish start against struggling Colorado last Friday in which their only points in the first quarter came on defense with a sack for a safety, the Trojans got it in gear to cruise to a 55-17 victory.
The 55 points were USC’s most since scoring 66 against Rice in the season opener and marked the Trojans’ fourth consecutive contest scoring at least 41 points.
Despite its offensive proficiency over that stretch, last week’s blowout was the first in USC’s last four games decided by more than a single-possession point margin. The Trojans dropped a 43-42 loss Oct. 15 at Utah for their only loss of the season, kept Arizona at bay in a 45-37 shootout on Oct. 29, and survived a late Cal rally in a 41-35 decision on Nov. 5.
Continuing to successfully navigate a narrow margin for error has USC in contention for both its third Pac-12 Championship Game appearance in six seasons, and the Trojans’ first-ever berth in the Playoff.
USC boasts its best record at this juncture in the season since 2008. Maintaining its current pace depends in part on limiting UCLA’s own prolific offense and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
“He was impressive from the jump. He really was,” said Riley, who faced Thompson-Robinson in 2018 and 2019 while the head coach at Oklahoma.
“You could tell he had some real ability there at a young age. … A talented player like him and being coached by the guys that are coaching him, it’s no surprise that he has (improved).”
Thompson-Robinson passed for 349 yards with four touchdowns and rushed for another two scores in UCLA’s 62-33 win at USC last season.
A win on Saturday would keep alive the Bruins’ hope of appearing in their first Pac-12 Championship since 2012.
–Field Level Media