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USC-UCLA is a statement game

Trojans want to win for Ed Orgeron. Bruins want to show they're the best team in the city.

November 29, 2013|By Gary Klein
  • USC Coach Ed Orgeron and UCLA Coach Jim Mora are leading their teams into the annual rivalry game with more at stake than bragging rights.
USC Coach Ed Orgeron and UCLA Coach Jim Mora are leading their teams into… (Associated Press and Los…)

A berth in a Bowl Championship Series bowl game is not at stake. Nor is a chance to play for the Pac-12 Conference title.

But the outcome of the 83rd game between No. 22 UCLA and No. 23 USC on Saturday at the Coliseum could have a dramatic impact on both programs.

USC, 9-3 overall and 6-2 in conference play, is riding a wave of "Coach O" hysteria.

UCLA (8-3, 5-3) is going for a second consecutive win over the Trojans under Coach Jim Mora.

At USC, interim Coach Ed Orgeron has captivated players, assistant coaches, fans and recruits while leading the Trojans to a 6-1 record since replacing the fired Lane Kiffin.

"This is a huge game for the University of Southern California," Orgeron said.

And for Orgeron — who is trying to become the Trojans' full-time coach.

UCLA's opportunity to possibly advance to the Pac-12 title game for the third year in a row ended last week when it lost to Arizona State. But Mora knows fans from both teams are still looking forward to the rivalry game.

"When both teams are good, when both teams are competitive, it invigorates the city," he said. "It ignites a passion and it ignites debate. That's how it should be."

USC's turnaround under the fiery Orgeron, which included a pulsating upset of Stanford, has reverberated across the college football landscape and, perhaps more significantly, across town.

Orgeron is a semifinalist for the Maxwell Football Club coach-of-the-year award, and Mora gave him his vote for Pac-12 coach of the year.

Former Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel immortalized Orgeron in song, penning and performing a tribute that included an "Ed O" chorus certain to be heard among the Coliseum crowd.

J.K. McKay, a USC senior associate athletic director, playfully celebrated last week's victory at Colorado by putting his hands over his head in a salute to "Coach O."

Meantime, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden has said Orgeron is "clearly in our eyesight" but that he would continue to perform due diligence in his search for the Trojans' permanent head coach.

A victory over the Bruins would amp up the pressure on Haden to drop the interim tag and give Orgeron the job, especially with USC facing one more year of NCAA sanctions and needing at least a few sanctions-free years to fully rebuild the roster.

Several current and former USC players — including Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen — have stated publicly that they want Orgeron. The drumbeat continued this week as a Trojans team led by quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Marqise Lee and defensive end Leonard Williams prepared for the Bruins.

"If we win this final game, I think it helps with Pat Haden making the decision to keep Coach O, which we all are pulling for," junior safety Josh Shaw said. "So we're not only playing for ourselves right now. Coach O is family, he's the head of our family and we definitely want to keep him around.

"So whatever it takes to keep him around — we'll run through a brick wall for him."

Mora, in his second season in Westwood, appears to have engendered similar feeling among his players.

The Bruins, led by quarterback Brett Hundley, burgeoning two-way star Myles Jack and linebacker Anthony Barr, are trying to boost Mora's record to 2-0 against USC and establish UCLA's program as the best in L.A.

Few would argue that Mora and his staff have significantly changed the Bruins' culture. But a loss to USC could cool speculation that Mora will become a top candidate for other jobs.

Last season, UCLA went 9-5, including a 38-28 victory over No. 21 USC. The Bruins then lost twice to Stanford and got blown out by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. They were 3-2 against ranked teams at the time they played, 1-3 against teams that finished the season ranked.

Mora still drew interest from Auburn and Tennessee.

This season, the Bruins are 1-3 against ranked teams. They have lost to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.

Now comes USC.

Bruins receiver Shaquelle Evans called out the Trojans early this season. "We're going to try and embarrass them, honestly" he said, adding, "They're struggling. It's just awesome to see that. I hate 'em, so I'm just loving it."

This week, Evans said another victory over the Trojans would be significant.

"The main thing is recruiting, to get people to come here," he said. "Nothing would be a bigger boost than beating the team that has been dominating you the previous eight or nine years. It just shows that the program is making strides."

The last time the rivals played at the Coliseum, in 2011, USC defeated the Bruins, 50-0.

During the week, many USC seniors and draft-eligible juniors said they had not taken time to consider that this could be their final game with the Trojans in their home stadium.

Neither did Orgeron.

"We said, 'Hey, we're going to play eight games, one game at a time and let the chips fall where they may,'" he said. "I know this, when we walk out in the stadium on Saturday night, I feel this group of men, these coaches and our players, have given everything they possibly can, just like I said we would.

"And that's a satisfying feeling."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

Staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.

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