USC owns LA, but UCLA will own this year’s rivalry game

UCLA wants to beat USC.

It’s crazy to predict this game, crazy to risk the outpouring of ridicule if wrong, crazy to attempt forecasting the most evenly matched crosstown rivalry duel in many years — crazy, crazy, crazy.

Doing it anyway.

Doing it because this is what UCLA does.

The Bruins have been deflated, they’re embarrassed, they blew their chance at the national playoffs with an unthinkable loss Saturday night to Arizona and …

And here comes USC, rolling along, three wins from possibly its own playoff spot, no trap losses here, only a blindingly bright future and …

And this is when UCLA knocks USC’s lights out.

This feels like 13-9 in 2006. This feels like John Barnes in 1992. The Bruins have no momentum, no mojo, they’re wounded, they’re cornered …

Yet right now, they’re better.

This doesn’t mean UCLA has a superior football program. It doesn’t. This doesn’t mean UCLA can win and suddenly claim city domination. It most certainly cannot.

This is not a “Westwood, Ho” prediction column from 21 years ago, portions of which are still mockingly shouted at a certain columnist as he walks down through the Coliseum seats, thank you very much.

USC has 11 national championships in football; UCLA has one. USC has seven Heisman Trophy winners; UCLA has one.

Now and maybe forever, on college football fields from Pasadena to Exposition Park, USC still owns this town.

But UCLA will own Saturday night.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams talks with coach Lincoln Riley during the Trojans’ 42-25 victory over Arizona State on Oct. 1. USC is 9-1 but has not beaten a ranked team this season.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The Bruins will own it and at least temporarily suspend the belief that the Trojans’ Lincoln Riley is some sort of deity and his team of high-priced free agents can just steamroll through the neighborhood.

Riley has seemingly put the Trojans on a path toward greatness, but they’re not there yet.

The Bruins will own it and save the rejuvenated Chip Kelly from another offseason of skepticism and derision, stop everybody from wondering why he’s still here and what in the world was Martin Jarmond thinking.

There’s been no harsher criticism of Kelly than in this space, but in this fifth season he has become engaged and innovative and perhaps even inspirational.

UCLA will own Saturday because the Bruins have the best quarterback, a five-year veteran who lives for these moments, a kid who literally hurdled his way to greatness in last year’s game when his team pinned a rivalry-record 62 points on the Trojans.

Caleb Williams of USC is terrific, but UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson is better.

The Bruins will own Saturday because they have a Heisman-worthy running back, a hulking and rolling rock who this season has averaged nearly eight yards every time he has touched the ball.

With USC’s Travis Dye sadly injured, UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet will have the spotlight — and the field — to himself.

The Bruins will own Saturday because their smart and suffocating offensive line has four seniors and graduate transfers who open such giant holes that the team gained 402 yards rushing against Arizona State and Charbonnet didn’t even play.

The offensive mind of Riley is unmatched, but UCLA’s offense — statistically and practically — is actually better.

The Bruins will own Saturday, finally, because their defense, unlike USC’s defense, is not the dregs of the earth.

UCLA can actually rush the passer. UCLA can even occasionally stop the run. UCLA doesn’t have the great takeaway ability of USC, and, in fact, has a pretty lousy overall defense. But USC’s defense — which surrendered 500-plus yards in consecutive games this season — is even worse.

Special teams? UCLA has an on-field coach dedicated to that important phase of the game. USC does not. Case closed.

A season that began with USC getting all the headlines — this columnist even wrote they might be the best team in this country — has morphed into a mostly memorable autumn for UCLA.

The Bruins have a fairly surprising 8-2 record with overpowering wins against then-No. 15 Washington and then-No. 11 Utah. The Trojans, meanwhile, are 9-1 but without a top-25 win.

While USC is playing for a national playoff spot, UCLA is playing for a more realistic and equally enduring prize. The Bruins can’t win the national title, but they are three wins away from playing in their first Rose Bowl in 24 years.

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet stiff-arms Utah linebacker Karene Reid during the Bruins' 42-32 win Oct.  8th.

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet stiff-arms Utah linebacker Karene Reid during the Bruins’ 42-32 win Oct. 8th.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

More than anything, UCLA is playing with no fear of this talent-clogged USC team. The Bruins will not be intimidated by their more glamorous neighbors. Their culture was retrofitted with confidence after their 62-33 victory last season. They know they can do this.

“We know we’re going to replicate it,” Bruins defensive back Mo Osling III told reporters Saturday night. “We’re going to have a little bit of fire underneath our butts. Go out there and just put it on display.”

In front of an actual Rose Bowl crowd that should be making real live noise, that display will end with a glowing scoreboard that one can see here first.

UCLA 42, USC 35.

Crazy? Anything but.

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