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COLLEGE FOOTBALL

USC-UCLA game can have an effect on recruiting

Coaches might not want to put too much influence on the result, but the local players are paying attention.

November 27, 2009|By Gary Klein and Chris Foster
  • Dietrich Riley of St. Francis High in La Canada has a big choice of scholarship offers, with USC and UCLA near the top of his list.
Dietrich Riley of St. Francis High in La Canada has a big choice of scholarship… (Keith Birmingham / San Gabriel…)

Dietrich Riley is undecided.

With dozens of big-time college football programs recruiting him, the safety and running back from La Canada St. Francis High shuffles his favorites nearly every week.

USC and UCLA are at or near the top of Riley's list, so the Pasadena resident will be on the sidelines and watching with acute interest Saturday night when the Trojans play the Bruins at the Coliseum.

Will the outcome tilt him toward the winner?

"I wouldn't say one game will affect my decision at all," Riley said.

That's what most Trojans and Bruins players thought when both schools wooed them.

But several said the rivalry-game result caused them to switch their choice from one program to the other or cemented their original choice.

USC Coach Pete Carroll and UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel acknowledge the importance of the annual showdown as a tool of influence.

"Sure, it has an effect," said Carroll, who is 7-1 against the Bruins.

Neither Carroll nor Neuheisel will pin their yearlong talent-hunting efforts on one game -- "I'm not going to let the outcome derail recruiting," Neuheisel said -- but this particular game could have a huge impact.

USC, which has enjoyed a stockpile of talent that helped the Trojans win two national championships and seven consecutive Pacific 10 Conference titles, suddenly appears in need of reinforcements, especially on defense. The Trojans have lost two of their last three games in blowouts.

"We're down in numbers, especially at linebacker, and we haven't done well on defense," Carroll said. "So I think the two of them go hand in hand that we need some help."

Meantime, UCLA has won three games in a row and shows signs of a program on the rise. Neuheisel, in his second season, said that beating USC would be, "a huge momentum boost" to recruiting and that it would "signal that we're getting there faster than expected."

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Riley will be looking for signs about both programs during the 79th edition of the crosstown rivalry.

USC safety Will Harris remembered being in a similar position.

The fifth-year senior from Covina had told UCLA coaches he was coming to Westwood during his junior season at Charter Oak High. Then he went to the 2004 USC-UCLA game at the Rose Bowl and saw the Trojans beat the Bruins, 29-24.

"I told [UCLA] I was coming there and then, you know, the game happened and I was like, 'Man, I've got to go to SC. . . . I've got to go be a part of that,' " Harris said.

Offensive tackle Charles Brown, another fifth-year senior, also switched a commitment from UCLA to USC, though the game was not the tipping point.

"I kind of already knew that USC was better and I wanted to come here," he said. "The game just solidified it. Put a stamp on it."

UCLA's most distinguishing mark on the rivalry of late was its 13-9 upset of the Trojans in 2006. The Bruins knocked USC out of the Bowl Championship Series title game and caused former Bruins coach Karl Dorrell to proclaim, "I'm thinking about getting back on top in Los Angeles."

Dorrell was gone after the 2007 season, but UCLA defensive line coach Todd Howard sensed the ground on the recruiting trail had shifted slightly after that 2006 victory.

The Bruins' staff had already started working on what would be the 2008 recruiting class and found more receptive ears.

That group included several players from Los Angeles areas that for years had been almost exclusively USC territory. UCLA landed safety Rahim Moore and running back Johnathan Franklin from Dorsey, defensive end Datone Jones from Compton and cornerback Aaron Hester from Compton Dominguez.

All were starters this season, though Hester suffered a fractured fibula in the season opener.

"We had a good recruiting year following that 13-9 victory," Howard said. "Rahim, Datone, Those are the guys who are contributing heavily to our defense right now.

"People sensed that maybe it was evening out a little bit. We still have a long way to go. USC has national focus and we're trying to catch up. But kids got a sense that we were building and wanted to be in on the ground floor."

Moore did. He was on the sidelines at the Rose Bowl that day and the victory cemented his decision to attend UCLA.

"A lot of people were like, 'Wow, UCLA did it. They beat them,' " said Moore, who was a junior at the time. "It helped me out, convinced me that this is where I want to be. I was so happy after that game. I remember everybody partying in the locker room and I was partying too."

Moore said that the victory had others he knew reevaluating the landscape.

"Kids these days don't look at the big picture," Moore said. "Some kids go, 'USC is winning, I want to be there.' The decision I made was I could come to UCLA and have an opportunity to play and to build something. I already knew that. But that game made others realize it can get done here, and it will."

Whether another Bruins victory would be enough to influence players such as Riley remains to be seen.

He has culled information from friends in both programs, including Trojans freshman defensive backs Torin Harris and Byron Moore and UCLA receiver Randall Carroll and cornerback Sheldon Price.

Riley attended USC's Sept. 26 game against Washington State, was on a recruiting trip at Notre Dame in October when the Trojans defeated the Fighting Irish and also was at USC's win at Arizona State this month.

He saw UCLA play Oregon at the Rose Bowl in October.

High school seniors cannot sign national letters of intent until February, so Riley will go to the Coliseum on Saturday with a simple game plan.

"I'm just going to watch both teams compete," he said.

gary.klein@latimes.comchris.foster@latimes.com

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