On Saturday the virtuous, intelligent, ruggedly handsome men known as the UCLA Bruins will play host to the scourge of the city, a band of no-goodnicks only a mother could love, men whose lack of intelligence is matched only by their complete absence of moral fiber, a.k.a. the USC Trojans. Something like that, anyway.
Fans are ordinarily invested beyond reason in what are, at their heart, simply athletic contests, but in the context of a rivalry the whole thing takes on a certain shine. I keep trying to think about this game from different angles, about the pride and emotion of the Bruin players, about what this game means for the season as a whole, about anything and everything related to the game, and one thought keeps intruding: Is there any way this doesn't come down to the Bruins' secondary vs. Matt Barkley, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods?
The announcers for the Washington State game spent some time praising Sheldon Price an Aaron Hester, and I couldn't have been the only Bruin fan who spent the night arguing with the TV. Only three teams in the country have given up more 30+ yard passing plays than UCLA. When opposing quarterbacks don't connect on shots down field, Bruin fans are left waiting for the flag to come in.
Maybe the defensive line will save us. Anthony Barr is coming off one of the best performances of his career. He was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for what he did against WSU. 2.5 sacks, including one for a safety, and a blocked punt. Cassius Marsh had another 2.5 sacks and a blocked field goal. All told, the UCLA defense has collected 37 sacks this season. Surely they can get to Barkley, taking him down and/or forcing him into questionable throws?
Maybe. Probably. But it isn't going to happen on every series, and it isn't going to happen all night. USC is averaging less than two sacks allowed per game; The secondary will have to carry its share of the weight, and we know what that looks like. It keep thinking that maybe they have something we haven't seen yet, a trick or two, or something is going to click in practice and everything about their technique is going to change.
What if it's a shootout? The Bruin offense can keep up, can't they? I'm actually cautiously optimistic here. The Bruins have put up 44 points in their last three games, and Johnathan Franklin had two weeks of more than 160 yards each before an uncharacteristically quiet night against Washington State. Hundley has only two interceptions in the four games since his four-interception performance against Colorado. He's likely to face pressure on Saturday: The USC defense also has 37 sacks on the year, and UCLA has allowed 31. But what the hell, keep the optimism going and call it a strength. Hundley has plenty of experience getting hit, and he manages to succeed in spite of it. Barkley has only taken 14 sacks this year, but he's got 13 interceptions.
And that's how I keep returning to the secondary. Barkley's interception total is the highest in the Pac-12, but how many can the Bruins pick on Saturday? UCLA has 13 interceptions this year, top 25 nationally but middling in the Pac-12. It's not where they make their bread and butter, but they're going to need to make some grabs if they want to rattle Barkley. Can they do it when it counts?
That's the big question: Can they do it when it counts? UCLA has had a lot of success this year. They're on their way to only their second winning season in six years, Franklin set the school rushing record and Hundley is showing form that only bodes well for the Bruin future. Those are all things Bruins fans can be absolutely sure of, but they aren't answers to the kinds of questions that are coming on Saturday.