UCLA's Damien Thigpen pulls in a pass to score a touchdown against… (Matt York / Associated Press )
A battered and bruised UCLA football team received some good news Tuesday. The Bruins are expected to have running back Damien Thigpen back for Saturday's game against USC at the Rose Bowl.
Thigpen sat out last Saturday's game at Washington State because of a minor sprain in his left knee. It robbed the Bruins of one of their most effective players.
"Getting Thiggy back helps us in the return game and helps spread the field more on offense," Coach Jim Mora said.
Thigpen averages 26.9 yards on kickoff returns. He is third on the team with 249 yards rushing and also has 17 receptions for 216 yards.
His big-play potential was clear in a 45-43 victory over Arizona State on Oct. 27. Thigpen had touchdown receptions of 65 and 20 yards.
"He is so good when we get the ball in his hands out of the backfield," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "That was part of our package we didn't have last week."
Leading receiver Shaquelle Evans, who sustained an undisclosed injury against Washington State, is also expected to play.
But the Bruins may have to wait on others.
Running back/receiver Steve Manfro (knee) will be a game-time decision and receiver Kenneth Walker (concussion) is questionable.
The Bruins are also without receiver Devin Lucien, who suffered a broken collarbone against Colorado on Sept. 29. He had emerged as a deep threat, with 10 receptions for 188 yards.
The loss of receivers has opened the door for two freshmen. Jordan Payton had seven receptions for 99 yards and one touchdown in the last two games. Devin Fuller, a converted quarterback, has five catches — two for touchdowns — in the last three games.
Just having Thigpen back will be a boost to the offense.
"He's an explosive guy who has made big plays for us this year," Mazzone said.
Thigpen is the top backup to Johnathan Franklin, UCLA's career rushing leader, and Mazzone also has used them in the backfield at the same time.
Thigpen has scored four touchdowns, three covering 20 or more yards.
"When Johnathan comes out and Thiggy goes in, it's not like the defense can go, 'phew,' " Mora said. "This is a guy who we have all seen make really good plays."
A UCLA victory against USC would put Mora on a short list. The only other UCLA coach to win nine games in his first season was Terry Donahue, who had a record of 9-2-1 in 1976.
The Bruins' 4-1 road record this season is their best since they were 5-1 in 2002. UCLA could tie that mark, but it would require getting to and winning the Pac-12 title game against either Oregon or Stanford.
UCLA hired a security squad to protect practice from spies, both real and imagined, this week. The team of six to eight guards was patrolling the area around Spaulding Field on Tuesday morning.
The only people milling around the practice field when practice started were 13 students waiting in line for basketball tickets and a handful of construction workers putting finishing touches on Pauley Pavilion.
Meanwhile, across campus, security guards were nowhere to be found Monday night when vandals painted "USC" and an obscene drawing on a UCLA sign near the north entrance.