Bruins running back Johnathan Franklin eludes the tackle of Arizona Wildcats… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
In the fall of 2006, Johnathan Franklin was a junior running back at Los Angeles Dorsey High leaning toward playing college football at Arizona State.
Then he attended the UCLA-USC game as a guest of the Bruins.
UCLA upset the second-ranked Trojans, 13-9, at the Rose Bowl.
"After that game," Franklin said, "I knew I was going to UCLA and we were going to the top."
The Bruins aren't there yet. But a victory over the Trojans on Saturday in Pasadena would move them a step closer.
On the field and, perhaps, the recruiting front.
In a series that dates to 1929, the outcome could be decided by players who were in high school only five months ago.
True freshmen have played major roles for both the No. 17 Bruins and No. 21 Trojans, who are competing for the Pac-12 South Division title, a berth in the conference championship game and a possible shot at the Rose Bowl.
Twelve of the 22 freshmen in UCLA Coach Jim Mora's first recruiting class have played for a Bruins team that is 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12.
Seven of the 13 freshman scholarship players whom USC Coach Lane Kiffin brought in or signed last winter have been on the field for a team that opened the season ranked No. 1 and is 7-3 and 5-3 in the Pac-12.
Veteran stars such as Franklin and USC quarterback Matt Barkley have commanded most of the media attention this week. But first-year freshmen and the roles they have filled are of interest for high school recruits in the Class of 2013 and beyond.
USC has won 12 of the last 13 games in the series.
"This is a real chance for UCLA to show not only that it's balancing out, but it's potentially trending upward," for the Bruins, said Brandon Huffman, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com.
Erik McKinney, West recruiting coordinator for ESPN.com, said that Mora and his staff have the opportunity to cap a successful first year with momentum that can carry through signing day in February.
"Their biggest thing is they don't want recruits to be thinking, 'Oh, if I don't get a USC offer, I'll look at UCLA,'" McKinney said. "They want to say they're the best team in the city. This game gives you a chance to walk away with a pretty definitive answer."
USC's recent dominance in the series can be partly attributed to the roles first-year freshmen have played for the Trojans.
Much of USC's success during Kiffin's stint as an assistant from 2001-2006 was built with help from freshmen such as receivers Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett, linebackers Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga, offensive tackle Winston Justice and running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White.
It continued when Kiffin returned to lead a program hit hard with NCAA sanctions.
"I think for years, recruits coming here have seen the success of freshmen playing," Kiffin said.
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams and offensive tackle Max Tuerk are among five true freshmen who have started games for USC this season. Receiver Nelson Agholor, fullback Jahleel Pinner and cornerback Kevon Seymour are others.
"They know coming in that they're going to practice with the first team," USC recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron said. "At some point in training camp, Coach Kiffin is going to say, 'Hey, get in there. Let's see what you've got.'"
Tuerk, from Rancho Santa Margarita, said that a promise of immediate playing time would not have been necessary because USC was his "dream school." But an opportunity to compete for playing time as a freshman drew Williams and Agholor from Florida.
So did the success of players such as junior receiver Robert Woods and sophomore Marqise Lee, both of whom were Freshman All-Americans. "Those two guys are the reason I'm here," Agholor said.
Mora, noting that all players "want to come in and have an impact immediately," said he has never promised an incoming freshman a starting spot. "I have said, 'If you earn it, if you're the best guy, then we're going to play you,'" Mora said.
That's what drew Bruins players such as offensive lineman Simon Goines, safety Randall Goforth, cornerback Ishmael Adams, kicker Ka'imi Fairburn and receivers Devin Fuller, Kenneth Walker and Jordan Payton.
"They told me I had a pretty good chance to come in and play right away, I just had to work at it," said Goines, the starting right tackle. "That makes you trust the coach. He really wants you. You're not just another player."
Goforth, who played at Long Beach Poly, said he also was told that he might earn immediate playing time.
"They never sold me a dream," Goforth said. "They just told me if I come in and work hard, they would be willing to give me shot and they did."
Kiffin, preparing for his ninth USC-UCLA game, said that recruits typically do not make college decisions based on the outcome of one game.
Mora isn't sure if the game itself can land a recruit. "It's probably a case-by-case basis," he said.
In Franklin's case, it mattered.
On Saturday, perhaps it will for others.