PASADENA, Calif. — Although UCLA isn’t exactly grateful for its humiliating 50-0 loss to Southern California last year, the Bruins are awfully eager to show the Trojans how they’ve grown since then.
After their biggest loss to their Los Angeles rivals since 1930, the Bruins began an impressive revitalization that has left UCLA improbably looking down on the Trojans heading into Saturday’s rematch. For the first time in more than a decade, No. 17 UCLA (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) has more victories and a higher ranking than No. 21 USC (7-3, 5-3) heading into their annual meeting.
UCLA coach Jim Mora wasn’t around last year, and he won’t have his players thinking about how low they dropped — not when they’ve got a chance to reach new heights by ending a five-game skid against USC.
“Honestly, I’ve totally forgotten last year,” UCLA linebacker Dalton Hilliard said. “Everything has changed. We’re a totally different team now. Being a competitor, you have to swallow your pride and get back to work on this year, this game.”
The teams are meeting for a prize much more interesting than the Victory Bell: The winner represents the Pac-12 South in the league championship game in two weeks. The Bruins got that honor last year despite their thrashing from postseason-banned USC, which finished two games ahead of UCLA in the division standings.
Revenge, redemption, dominance, postseason glory: Every hackneyed element is in place for a memorable edition of the crosstown showdown. While students and alumni debate the meeting’s place in history — or the appropriateness of USC’s drum major driving a sword into the Rose Bowl turf, a traditional move that’s been nixed this year — the players on both sides are focused on Saturday’s more tangible stakes.
“Most guys grew up knowing the tradition between the two schools, and we knew a lot of those guys over there growing up,” said USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who has never lost to UCLA. “We’re so close in distance that it’s bound to happen, but you can’t let anybody distract you from your job and what you have to do for your teammates.”
Led by freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins are rolling into the Rose Bowl after four straight wins. Mora has revitalized UCLA football to a degree that was tough to imagine immediately after last season’s 50-0 defeat, which cost Rick Neuheisel his job two days later.
USC coach Lane Kiffin isn’t enjoying this season nearly as much. The preseason No. 1 team has lost two of three despite a wealth of talent, and Kiffin acknowledged this week that the Trojans have badly underachieved.
Yet Kiffin and the Trojans don’t see the Bruins’ rise as a threat. They see it as a welcome challenge, realizing a rivalry just isn’t a rivalry unless both teams are competitive.
“We haven’t really seen the UCLA you’ve seen in the past, when these two teams just battled it out,” USC senior defensive lineman Wes Horton said. “It’s huge this year. We don’t want to see UCLA walking around in their baby blue and gold, talking about how they beat USC. We have a high standard for this game.”
Despite the Trojans’ failures, they’ve still got a path back to the Rose Bowl if they could finish the season with wins over three ranked teams: UCLA, Notre Dame and likely Oregon. USC hasn’t mentioned that prospect very much this week, but the players are aware their season can be saved.
“A game like this can really get you motivated to do well,” USC receiver Marqise Lee said. “We don’t need to worry about what we’re playing for. We just need to worry about UCLA, because UCLA is way better than they were last year. You also know half of the guys over there, so it’s extra motivation to go against people you’ve known your whole life.”
Indeed, both teams are constructed largely from the rich cache of football talent found annually in the Los Angeles area and beyond, leading to high school teammates playing against each other — or those with even closer bonds. Safety T.J. McDonald, USC’s leading tackler, will play against UCLA safety Tevin McDonald, the Bruins’ second-leading tackler and T.J.’s little brother.
Their father, former Trojans defensive back Tim McDonald, won’t wear blue and gold, but Horton’s father, Myke, won’t wear cardinal and gold after playing for UCLA in the 1970s.
“I just don’t like UCLA, even though he went there,” Wes Horton said of his father, who went on to become one of the American Gladiators on the syndicated game show. “I’ve been here five years, so I know what it’s all about. All the old-timers are going to be watching to see how we handle a really good UCLA team. … I don’t think I could take losing to them right before I went out of here.”