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Bruins hope trouble isn't around the corners

Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price face a tough assignment against USC's Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

November 15, 2012|By Chris Foster
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Everyone is talking about USC's receivers.

Everybody will be watching UCLA's cornerbacks.

Can USC's Marqise Lee and Robert Woods be stopped? Are UCLA's Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price the ones to do it?

Bruins Coach Jim Mora has said he would put USC's receivers "up against any all-time." The players he puts up against them have struggled this season.

"We have been tested a lot," Hester said. "This is kind of like the SATs."

The PSAT didn't go so well.

Lowly Washington State ran up 457 yards passing and nearly chased down the Bruins in a 44-36 win last week. The Cougars had seven pass plays of 30 or more yards.

Not all of that can be hung on Hester and Price, but they did look vulnerable deep. Each was also called for an interference penalty on a long pass during the game.

"We look at schemes as well as personnel every week and we'll attack certain points like we always do," USC quarterback Matt Barkley said.

They won't have to scour game tapes too hard to find points to challenge.

In games that UCLA has lost or struggled to win, opponents have carved up the Bruins' secondary. Oregon State had 379 yards passing in a 27-20 victory. California had 295 yards in a 43-17 victory. Arizona State had 315 yards in a 45-43 loss.

Hester and Price, both seniors, have been singled out by unhappy fans and scrutinized by the media.

"If we're not making plays and people are throwing touchdowns against us, you have to look at the back end," Price said. "We're the people covering down field. At same time, we block that noise out, continue to play and continue to get better."

There has been improvement, Hester said.

"We have had a few minor games where we gave up some stats that we shouldn't have given up," Hester said. "I feel like since the California game [Oct. 6] we have been rolling. We have been winning games."

Barkley's lot in life is a lot easier with Lee and Woods as targets. Of his 33 touchdown passes, 13 have gone to Lee and 10 to Woods.

Lee, a sophomore, is considered the top receiver in the nation. There is a marketing push by USC to get him consideration for the Heisman Trophy — if not this season, then in 2013. He has 98 receptions for 1,447 yards.

Woods' numbers are not as gaudy, but the junior still has 61 receptions for 653 yards this season and a school-record 237 catches in his career.

"It's a big challenge and I think we're up for it," Price said. "As a defensive back, playing for the Pac-12 division title against your rival is all you can ask."

However, there's this from the be-careful-what-you-ask-for file: In a 50-0 rout of UCLA a year ago, Lee had 13 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns and Woods had 12 receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns.

"This is a big-time challenge," Hester said. "You get to play against one of the best quarterbacks in the country. You have one of the best receivers, if not the best receiver, in the country. We want to prove that we can compete and make plays."

A little help wouldn't hurt.

UCLA is tied for fourth nationally in sacks — with USC — and Bruins linebacker Anthony Barr is tied for sixth nationally with 11. Defensive ends Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh have been effective as pass rushers, and Barkley is far from nimble.

"Quarterbacks at all levels are affected by pressure because there are hands in the throwing lanes. There are bodies closer to them. They might have to throw the ball quicker," Mora said. "So no matter if they are Matt Barkley or Tom Brady or Drew Brees, pressure can affect them."

And the Bruins plan to pressure.

"The only thing we can do is get there," Jones said. "We have to hold our gap and get to the quarterback."

If they don't?

"We're the ones on the island," Price said. "That's a daily thing."

Quick hits

UCLA is running short of receivers: Kenneth Walker (concussion) will not play. Devin Lucien (broken collarbone) has not been cleared. Darius Bell (ankle) was in a walking boot on Thursday. Steven Manfro (knee) is doubtful. ... UCLA's game against Stanford on Nov. 24 at the Rose Bowl will begin at either noon (and shown on the Pac-12 Networks) or 3:30 p.m. (Channel 11).

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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