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USC vs. UCLA: This time, stakes are high for both sides

Trojans and Matt Barkley will try to beat UCLA one more time while Bruins seek a turnaround after losing 12 of last 13 meetings. Pac-12 South title is on the line too.

November 16, 2012|By Chris Foster
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UCLA athletic department officials loathed seeing the USC band's drum major stick a sword in the Rose Bowl turf, and lobbied to get the scene cut from a Pac-12 Conference promotional video a year ago. The clip was removed.

Months later, in September, UCLA fans raged about seeing USC quarterback Matt Barkley's smiling face staring down from a billboard in Westwood and applied pressure, including threats of vandalism. The ad was removed.

Yes, the Bruins have had some little victories over the Trojans this year. Now, can they get a big one?

UCLA can end more than a decade of hand-wringing by beating USC at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

The Trojans are seeking the status quo in the series but are also chasing a berth in the Rose Bowl game and a historic ending to Barkley's career. He can become the first USC quarterback to defeat UCLA four times as a starter.

"I'm just thinking about this year," Barkley said. "Looking back, hopefully I can say that."

The game will decide the Pac-12 South Division championship, with the winner going to the conference title game. But it could also change some perceptions.

"I'm not a psychic; this is just another opportunity to prove that what we've done all year wasn't for nothing," UCLA linebacker Dalton Hilliard said. "What will a victory mean? That's for others to analyze."

Jim Mora, UCLA's first-year coach, said the Bruins need to approach this game like any other. Yet, unlike in previous weeks, game preparation at UCLA included hiring security guards to patrol the practice area.

Players have tried to follow in lock step behind Mora, but they have also seen USC dominate the rivalry, winning 12 of the last 13 games.

"We definitely understand, whoever wins, the other team is going to hear about it all year," UCLA senior running back Johnathan Franklin said. "The car flags of the winner will come out and everybody will be wearing their T-shirts."

Both teams have been players in the "BCS" in the past decade — the Trojans in the Bowl Championship Series, with appearances in five Rose Bowls and two Orange Bowls; the Bruins in the bowl consolation series, with trips to Las Vegas, San Jose, El Paso and San Francisco for lower-tier games.

UCLA has worked off the field to fight the notion that Los Angeles is a USC town. UCLA's marketing department ran an ad in 2008 proclaiming "the college football monopoly in Los Angeles is over." Coach Rick Neuheisel said before last year's game that the Bruins had "closed the gap" with the Trojans.

USC won, 50-0, and Neuheisel was fired.

There was no such talk this year, even though UCLA is ahead of USC in the standings and national rankings. UCLA is 8-2 overall, 5-2 in Pac-12 play and ranked 17th in the Associated Press media poll. USC, which opened the season as the top-ranked team in the nation, is 7-3, 5-3 and ranked No. 21.

"We're fortunate to have the conference losses that we do and still be able to be in this hunt," USC Coach Lane Kiffin said.

UCLA played in last year's Pac-12 title game, but only because USC had been banned by the NCAA from making any postseason appearances.

This one would come without an asterisk. "I don't think anyone could take that away from us," Hilliard said.

Said Bruins safety Andrew Abbott: "I think a win definitely will validate UCLA as an elite program."

There have been more than a few off-the-field flash points to the rivalry this season: Mora declaring in August that "we don't have murders a block from our campus." Barkley grinning on a giant billboard near UCLA's campus. A Twitter impostor posing as UCLA's Randall Goforth and picking a fight with USC receiver Robert Woods.

And this week, UCLA officials told USC that if its drum major stabs the Rose Bowl turf, the band would not be allowed to perform at halftime.

"It's the battle of L.A., anything can happen," Barkley said.

Barkley decided not to jump to the NFL after last season, citing unfinished business. The Trojans have faded from the national title picture and Barkley as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but there's still the Rose Bowl.

Mark Sanchez, John David Booty and Matt Leinart — Barkley's quarterback predecessors — all took the Trojans to the Rose Bowl. Barkley has never been. USC was banned from bowl appearances the last two seasons.

Barkley and the Trojans can get there by closing with victories over UCLA and Notre Dame and in the Pac-12 title game, where top-ranked Oregon would be the likeliest opponent.

Heady stuff, but Barkley isn't looking beyond Saturday.

"This game has a lot of meaning for both of these teams," Barkley said. "They are a much-improved team from last year, that's for sure. . . . It's going to be a great matchup."

A win for UCLA would keep the Bruins alive for the Rose Bowl even if they ended up losing the Pac-12 title game against Oregon. If Oregon qualifies for the BCS title game, the Rose Bowl would have a spot open and any team ranked in the top 14 in the final BCS standings would be eligible for selection. UCLA, if it defeats USC and then Stanford in its regular-season finale, might achieve that ranking.

A big victory for someone will be won.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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