PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 05: Quarterback Kevin Prince #4 of the UCLA Bruins thorws a pass as he scrambles against the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Rose Bowl on November 5, 2011 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The Bruins deserve to be underdogs. They don't deserve to be counted out.
I'm not saying it will happen, just that it could. The UCLA Bruins, whose defining trait as a football program is its enduring capacity to disappoint, can beat the fearsome USC Trojans at the Coliseum this Saturday. I mean this not as a squirrelly "any given Saturday" nod to chaos theory and the inscrutability of the future. What I mean is, a UCLA win is an event with a no worse than one-in-three chance of really happening. This is not what Angelenos have been led to believe, but they need to start preparing themselves for it.
Rivalry Week 2011 has been all about the supposed resurgence of the Trojan brand. Last Saturday USC toppled Oregon in Autzen Stadium, an admittedly nice feat. Associated Press voters have blessed the Trojans with a top-10 ranking, Matt Barkley will almost surely be in New York for Heisman Trophy festivities, and USC sails into its season finale as a healthy 14½-point favorite over its ancient rival. Trojan football, we're told, is "back." Meanwhile, UCLA's shot at reaching the Pac-12 title game has taken on life as an ironic joke. It's funny because UCLA kinda stinks.
But Bruin fans, don't even worry about that. Instead feast your mind on these five reasons UCLA can reconquer the city, starting Saturday night.
1. The rivalry is ready for a new folk hero.
In the lore of the crosstown rivalry, the Scrappy Backup Quarterback holds a place of reverence. In 1983 Rick Neuheisel led the Bruins past USC and into the Rose Bowl after a midseason injury to starter Steve Bono. In 1992 walk-on , who began the season as the Brus' fifth-string QB, brought the house down with a 21-point fourth quarter rally. It's been almost 20 years since a Little QB Who Could knocked off the Trojans, which means the time is right for Kevin Prince to step into history. Physically the 6'4" Prince isn't that little, but in all other respects he fills the archetype. He wasn't an elite recruit. He's not going to play in the NFL. He's been injured and benched and injured some more. Since taking the wheel after Richard Brehaut broke his leg in October, however, he's gradually become a deft practitioner of the Pistol offense. The adversities of his college career have prepared him for this moment.
2. UCLA's offensive line enjoys knocking people on they ass, similar activities.
The Bruin attack doesn't have anything like USC's deep-strike threats. Occasionally Prince will look down field to Nelson Rosario or Shaquelle Evans off play action, but for the most part UCLA will need to score on long-sequence drives. Biting off real estate five yards at a time will keep Barkley off the field and the Bruin D fresh. Fortunately, the UCLA O-line can handle its business.
The front five are the unheralded backbone of this team. They started out the season strong and have only got tougher and violenter as the season's progressed. Senior center Kai Maiava won't win any postseason awards, but he's the program's offensive MVP. He and the feisty young guard rotation of Alberto Cid, Greg Capella and Wade Yandall have the chops to win the battle in the pit. The angles they pry open will sustain the inside running of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman and tax the stamina of USC's defensive front.
3. UCLA's cornerbacks have a flame-retardant coating.
Robert Woods and Marqise Lee make an explosively good wideout pairing. It's entirely possible they'll burn UCLA's defense to the ground Saturday night with one deep crossing route after the next. Certainly nothing in the Bruins' defensive track record suggests a shot at totally keeping a lid on the Trojan passing game. Quietly, though, without drawing much attention to themselves, UCLA's cornerbacks have toughened up and earned their stripes this season. Aaron Hester has always been pretty solid. Sheldon Price, with the best natural cover skills of the group, has had an injury-marred year but is now back at full speed. And Andrew Abbott, who stepped into the starting lineup while Price was out, has been one of the season's pleasant surprises. A former high-school teammate of Barkley, Abbott gives up size but plays bigger and faster than he really is. UCLA needs this crew to (a) not get torched and (b) make one or two game-turning plays. Doubters beware.
4. College kids are easily flattered.
USC's huge victory up in Oregon is the best thing that could've happened to UCLA. Because of it the Trojans have spent the past week on the receiving end of some epic ass-kissing. They've read all about Barkley's Heisman chances, whether he and Matt Kalil are off to the NFL soon, how if they return USC will be a national-title favorite next year and so on. (Never mind that this is the same USC team that crumbled against a mediocre Arizona State squad or how they came thiiiis close to choking away the Oregon win.) Who knows where their heads are right now? It's not hard to imagine they're luxuriating in the hype and not 100 percent focused on the grubby 6-5 opponent waiting for them on Saturday. A professional team can tune out the extraneous chatter. Nineteen- and 20-year-olds fall prey to overweening self-regard.
5. Rick Neuheisel won't go quietly.
Rumors abound that win or lose, Neuheisel's out after this game. He might not be allowed to coach in a bowl if the Bruins make it that far. (Though they already have six wins, they could actually end up not eligible for a bowl if they lose to USC and then lose in the Pac-12 championship game.) Why Neuheisel hasn't worked out at UCLA is a vexing question. To be honest it probably says more about the program and long-term institutional sickness than it does about Neuheisel himself. But he's a smart, crafty mofo and it's hard to believe he doesn't have one last "turn back the clock" game left in him. Think about it. Capping four years of underachievement with a monster upset in his supposedly final game, just to make life difficult for Dan Guerrero? That would be the most Neuheiseley thing ever.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.