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Passing game separates USC and UCLA

The Trojans, with quarterback Matt Barkley and their fleet of speedy receivers and nimble tight ends, rank 17th nationally in passing offense. UCLA is 103rd defending the pass.

November 11, 2012|By Gary Klein
  • USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee (9) have 68 and 91 receptions, respectively, this season.
USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee (9) have 68 and 91 receptions,… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

It's a matchup of rivals fairly competitive in most major statistical categories.

But there is at least one major divide between No. 21 USC and No. 17 UCLA as they head into Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl, which earns the winner a trip to the Pac-12 Conference title game.

USC, featuring quarterback Matt Barkley and a fleet of speedy receivers and nimble tight ends, ranks 17th nationally in passing offense.

UCLA is a lowly 103rd defending the pass.

And it might be worse for the Bruins had they not benefited from a Pac-12 scheduling cycle that allowed them to miss top-ranked Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota, the nation's passing efficiency leader.

"At times they've done really well," USC Coach Lane Kiffin said Sunday, "and at times they've given up some bigger passing games."

UCLA struggled again Saturday night at Washington State.

The Bruins won, 44-36, but Cougars sophomore Connor Halliday came off the bench and passed for 330 yards and five touchdowns.

Bruins cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester also had pass interference penalties.

"We have to learn from our mistakes," Price said after the game. "We made errors that we normally don't do."

The Bruins, who have given up 266.4 yards passing a game, know they don't have much margin for error against the Trojans.

In three games against UCLA, Barkley has passed for 827 yards and eight touchdowns, with three passes intercepted.

Last season, he completed 35 of 42 passes for 423 yards and six touchdowns, with no passes intercepted, in a 50-0 rout of the Bruins.

"He is accurate and makes all the throws," first-year UCLA Coach Jim Mora said Sunday. "I don't think anyone would say he can run around like Mike Vick, but he has pocket mobility. He will keep the play alive and then make a throw downfield."

Barkley is the Pac-12's all-time leader in touchdown passes, completions and yardage, but he is coming off one of his more flawed individual performances.

The senior passed for three touchdowns, but he had three passes intercepted — including one that was returned for a touchdown — in the Trojans' 38-17 victory over Arizona State. It was only the second time in Barkley's career, and the first time since his freshman season, that he had three intercepted passes in a game.

Barkley has passed for 33 touchdowns, with 13 passes intercepted this season.

USC's receiving corps features Heisman Trophy candidate Marqise Lee, 2011 All-American Robert Woods, freshman Nelson Agholor and tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.

"You don't see receivers like these too often," Mora said.

Lee is second nationally in receptions (9.8), receiving yards (144.7) and all-purpose yards (223.4) per game.

Meantime, Woods, a Biletnikoff Award finalist last season, has gotten increasingly fewer opportunities as Kiffin seeks to exploit Lee's gifts.

Last season, Woods caught a school-record 111 passes. This season he has 61 receptions, Lee 98.

Asked after the Arizona State game why Woods wasn't getting the ball more, Kiffin said, "That's a good question. I don't have the answer," and added that he had tried to involve Woods in the second half.

Barkley also said he was trying to get the ball to Woods.

"I'm not looking out there and picking between the two," he said.

Agholor broke out with a touchdown and 162 yards receiving against Oregon, but had only two catches against Arizona State. Grimble has five touchdown catches, Telfer three.

So Mora is hoping for an improved defensive performance against the Trojans.

"I always felt to play good pass defense, it's a combination of things," he said. "Your rush, your underneath coverage and your deep coverage.

"We've got to be able to, hopefully, pressure the quarterback, and stay disciplined in our coverage."

Quick hits

Saturday's game will kickoff at noon and will be televised by Fox…. UCLA has displaced USC as the most penalized team in major college football. The Bruins are averaging 9.2 penalties per game, USC 8.8.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.

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