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This Trip Won't Be a Cross-Town Bust

Trojans, Bruins riding win streaks, with a possible New Year's return to Pasadena on the line.

November 23, 2002|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

The counterfeit rivalry has gone legit.

For the first time since 1993, both USC and UCLA are ranked on the day they meet. Both are on winning streaks. Both are headed to bowl games. Both, in fact, are regarded as something they haven't been in a long time.

Money teams.

"Normally it's just a rivalry, but now a lot could come out of it for them and a lot could come out for us," USC quarterback Carson Palmer said. "So it makes it more important."

This time, the game is about more than bragging rights that the winners are too embarrassed to exercise.

It's about more than a victory bell with a hollow ring.

Nobody needs kid himself about salvaging a disastrous season by claiming, "This is our Rose Bowl." The winner could catapult to the real deal.

If No. 7 USC wins, having sent administrators to court Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl officials last week doesn't appear so extravagant. Only a game against Notre Dame will stand in the way of a BCS opportunity.

If No. 25 UCLA wins, the prospect of a bargain-basement bowl experience, such as Christmas with an Elvis Santa Claus in Las Vegas, is eliminated. And a bit of cooperation from Washington could have the Bruins smelling roses on New Year's Day.

"It means more than the last several years because there is something more than the game at stake," UCLA linebacker Marcus Reese said. "We can knock off their little national championship hopes. That would feel real good. Whoever wins is riding high."

The Trojans have won the last three games. UCLA won the previous eight. But it has been a long time since both teams came in with momentum.

USC was 17-19 over the last three seasons, which muted the bragging rights that normally accompany beating the Bruins.

"They weren't very good, so it's not like they could say much," Reese said. "We go to the same parties all the time and there wasn't much talking."

This time, the winners can shout it out. A victory will add flourish to an outstanding season.

The Trojans (8-2, 6-1) are favored, and for good reason. Make that 10,200 reasons.

That's how many more yards Palmer has passed for in his career than UCLA freshmen Drew Olson and Matt Moore combined.

Palmer has thrown 1,470 passes. Olson and Moore have thrown 81.

Palmer has thrown for 63 touchdowns. Olson and Moore for one each.

The teams are roughly even in every other phase. But Palmer, a Heisman Trophy candidate, gives the Trojans a clear advantage.

Five times a freshman quarterback has started for UCLA against USC. Only once, with Cade McNown in 1995, did the Bruins win.

The last time UCLA beat USC, in 1998, Palmer was a freshman. No coincidence there.

"It's tough because you don't understand what the game is all about," he said. "You go in hating UCLA and they go in hating USC, but you don't understand how much hate there is until you experience it."

Olson, who will start, and Moore, who also is expected to play, have exhibited senior poise in leading the Bruins (7-3, 4-2) to three consecutive victories, two on the road.

But they will be subjected to untold intensity today. Are they ready? Can they even tell?

Olson grew up in the Bay Area, and one theory presented this week is that he will be oblivious to the pressure because he knows little about the rivalry. But his father attended UCLA and Olson worshipped the Bruins.

"I watched the game on TV and had a pretty good idea of what it meant," he said.

Moore grew up in Santa Clarita and experienced the rivalry up close.

"I think they'll do fine," Bruin Coach Bob Toledo said.

"They don't have to win the football game for us, anyway. It's about the entire team and the coaches. They just need to do their part, and they understand that."

True enough, quarterbacks often aren't the heroes in this rivalry.

Yes, quarterback John Barnes led a dramatic UCLA victory in 1992, but Trojan defensive lineman George Achica, Bruin running back Ricky Davis and Trojan defensive back Antuan Simmons are names that unexpectedly became cemented in the game's lore.

Who could be added to the list today?

"Somebody is going to jump out," USC Coach Pete Carroll said.

It could be a ballcarrier who once was a starter and now must seize any opportunity. Maybe fullback Chad Pierson of USC takes a screen pass and rambles for a touchdown. Maybe tailback Akil Harris of UCLA breaks loose on a draw.

It could be a reserve cornerback who will be picked on as soon as he spells a starter. Maybe freshman James Wyatt of USC or senior Joe Hunter of UCLA intercepts a pass and sets up a pivotal score.

It could be a kicker who lost his job. UCLA's Chris Griffith, who has been replaced by Nate Fikse, has kicked 42 field goals in his career. USC's David Davis, now backing up Ryan Killeen, made 15 of 18 field goals last season.

"I'm preparing just like I'm going to play," Griffith said. "You never know."

Perhaps the greatest motivation is that of the seniors. A Trojan group of 23 that includes Troy Polamalu, Kareem Kelly and Darrell Rideaux has never lost to UCLA.

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