After a 9-1 start to the college football season, USC has a lot riding on Saturday’s match-up against crosstown rival UCLA, and USC students are itching for revenge after last year’s drubbing at home by the Bruins.
With USC’s Pac-12 and College Football Playoff hopes on the line, the stakes are high as the Trojans march into the Rose Bowl seeking their 50th all-time win against the Bruins.
For Evie Kay, a graduate student studying engineering, winning means atoning for last year’s 62-33 loss and bringing back the Victory Bell, the trophy awarded each season to the football champion of Los Angeles.
“We take a lot of pride in having the Bell at USC, so we’re all pretty stoked to get out to UCLA and start the Lincoln Riley era by getting that bell back,” Kay said.
Kay feels a different vibe from this year’s Trojans compared to 2021′s team.
“I think even as an onlooker looking at the sidelines and how the football team interacts, there’s a lot more spirit and just camaraderie within all the players,” she said.
USC goes into its last two regular season games — at UCLA and home to Notre Dame — with an outside shot at making the playoffs. The analytics-driven fivethirtyeight.com gives the Trojans a 17% chance of being chosen for a spot in the CFP. But if they can win both games and win the Pac-12 championship game, their odds increase to 82%.
But UCLA, fresh off a heartbreaking home loss to a 4-6 Arizona team that ended its playoff hopes, will be looking to spoil the party. Well-known L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke predicted UCLA to win this weekend, comparing this year’s matchup to that of 2006, when the Bruins upset the Trojans and eliminated them from playoff contention.
Despite the high stakes, Derek Balsamini, a junior psychology major and service director for the Trojan Knights, said he doesn’t feel any added pressure on the Trojans to beat their crosstown rivals this year.
“I think the pressure comes with this game every year,” he said. “USC and UCLA is the rivalry of the West Coast and debatably the biggest rivalry in all of college football.”
Balsamini did acknowledge the heightened implications resting on this matchup. If USC loses, they will most likely be eliminated entirely from playoff contention.
“I think there’s higher expectations for sure. This team is definitely much better than our team last year,” he said. “But I think this is definitely a team that has a chance to either win the Pac-12 [or] go to the College Football Playoff and those things definitely depend on the game coming up on Saturday.”
The 2022 edition of this rivalry bout comes with an added wrinkle: a marquee quarterback duel between Caleb Williams and Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Both Williams and Thompson-Robinson have made cases to be in the Heisman trophy conversation, the award for college football’s best player.
Williams, a sophomore, transferred to USC ahead of this season, having played under Reilly last year at Oklahoma. Thompson-Robinson is in his fifth season at UCLA, where he’s played 46 games for the Bruins and recently became their all-time leader in touchdown passes. In October, Plaschke devoted a column to making the case for Thompson-Robinson as L.A.’s best quarterback.
Jared Park, a freshman business major, strongly disagreed with Plaschke’s assertion.
“That’s a garbage take,” Park said. “There’s nothing statistically that Dorian Thompson-Robinson did better than Caleb Williams this season. It’s not even close.”
Brandon Arana, a junior cinema and media studies major who is also a Trojan Knight, said he couldn’t disagree with Plaschke more “both as a USC fan and … as a football fan in general.”
“Obviously, Caleb’s got my back,” Arana said. “I’m a Trojan for life. But I think, just statistically too, [Thompson-Robinson] is more mobile than Caleb, but I feel he’s not nearly as accurate as Caleb. He’s thrown more interceptions in the season.”
Thompson-Robinson has thrown four interceptions to Williams’ two.
USC will also be fighting off the injury bug this weekend after star running back Travis Dye suffered a season-ending injury to his left leg in last week’s game against Colorado. Dye’s loss could hamper USC’s offense, but Park said he isn’t too worried.
“[We] have a lot of good running backs, so hopefully it doesn’t make that much of a difference,” Park said.
USC’s second string running back Austin Jones posted 113 yards against Colorado in Dye’s absence.
The game will kick off at 5 p.m. at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and will be televised on Fox. As of Wednesday afternoon, ESPN’s projections give the Trojans a 60.2% chance of winning, declaring USC 2.5-point favorites.
Even more than winning, USC students said they want their bragging rights back.
When asked for any final thoughts ahead of the game, Arana pointed to the pile of shirts the Trojan Knights were selling next to him.
In yellow cursive letters, they read “FUCLA.”