Across town, the buildup for the USC-UCLA rivalry clash has had all the bluster and bravado one would typically expect from a game like this.
Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the elder statesmen of the showdown for the Victory Bell, is now in his fifth installment of the series (though he barely saw the field in the 2018 meeting as a freshman).
And it sure seems personal to him.
“I obviously know what’s at stake — trying to teach my younger teammates the tradition and everything that goes along into this game. Obviously, we hate those guys across town. It’s a bitter feeling with those guys,” Thompson-Robinson said Monday.
He wasn’t done …
“I remember [the 2020 game in the Rose Bowl] clear as day, cussing at us, flipping us off. Disrespectful as you can get,” he said
Back at Howard-Jones Field a couple days later, USC quarterback Caleb Williams couldn’t have taken a more different tack while talking after the Trojans’ Wednesday practice.
Asked what he’s learned about the rivalry before his first go-round, Williams said, “I haven’t learned much, to be honest with you. I’m treating it like another game. It’s another game. I’ve been in other big rivalry games so far in my career, so treat it like another game.”
Of course, it’s not just another game.
With USC (9-1, 7-1 Pac-12) at No. 7 in both the AP poll and CFP rankings and UCLA (8-2, 5-2) at No. 16 in both, it’s a marquee national showdown at a time of the year when the Trojans need the eyes of that playoff selection committee on them.
It’s also getting the full attention it deserves locally, as the Bruins announced a sellout in the Rose Bowl on Saturday (5 p.m. PT on FOX).
USC can clinch its spot in the Pac-12 championship game with a win and keep alive hopes for a playoff berth, while UCLA is still in play for a conference championship if it wins.
Even though it’s not the potential top-10 matchup it could have been had UCLA not lost to Arizona last week, this is still the highest combined ranking of the rivals for this game since 2005, when the Trojans were No. 1 and the Bruins No. 11.
“The energy is different. I could tell from [Monday] when we walked in the building, it’s like it’s go time,” said USC receiver Jordan Addison, who is also playing in his first installment of the rivalry. “Everybody walking around like it’s that week, so it’s time to go.”
Said sophomore safety Calen Bullock: “Everybody knows what week it is so everybody has that serious to them — not really playing around, more locked into this week. … We know what type of week it is for us.”
So locked in the Trojans have expressed no interest in retorting the verbal shots coming from Westwood this week.
“I have a general disdain for ‘SC just for being here for a couple months, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” said UCLA wide receiver Jake Bobo, a transfer from Duke who is originally from Massachusetts.
Have the Trojans been listening? It sure doesn’t sound like it …
“No, we really don’t pay attention to none of that. We really just focus on what we’ve got to do really,” Bullock said.
The USC players made available for interviews this week had to be informed that Thompson-Robinson said “We want to break 60” points, referencing UCLA’s 62-33 win last year in the Coliseum against a very different Trojans team.
“He said that? Yeah, I really didn’t know that. He has his own opinion, we know what we’re about to go out there and do. We’re going to go out there and execute. I know that’s not going to happen,” Bullock said.
Said Addison: “I ain’t see any of that, but who wouldn’t want to want to put 60 up against us? I mean, we’re USC. But they’re going to have to stand behind that. He’s going to have to stand on them words.”
Veteran edge rusher Nick Figueroa, who chose the Trojans over the Bruins as a highly-coveted JUCO transfer several years ago, was asked about Thompson-Robinson’s other comments and wouldn’t bite.
“Those are his comments. I know sometimes you get those questions that are a little bit targeting a response. I’m sure that’s kind of what his were. I’ve really got nothing to say,” Figueroa said.
And sixth-year center Brett Neilon?
“He’s obviously a fierce competitor, competes super hard. Those guys over there have had a great season. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be physical. He’s a great player,” Neilon said.
Stinging comeback, indeed.
One can only assume that a directive came down from coach Lincoln Riley to not trade trash talk leading up to the game.
Also, though, so much of this roster and coaching staff really has no reference point for the USC-UCLA rivalry, as the Trojans brought in 29 newcomers via transfer or as freshmen since last season.
Defensive backs coach Donte Williams is the lone coaching holdover, while rush ends coach Roy Manning spent one season on the other side of the rivalry at UCLA in 2018.
“It’s a big game for this city, and a couple people throughout the room have been talking about it, so I’m starting to get the feel a little bit,” Addison said.
Linebacker Shane Lee, who came over from Alabama this year, has plenty of rivalry experience in the Iron Bowl vs. Auburn. But he’s had to learn first-hand about the nuances of UCLA week on campus.
“I guess the first I noticed is I walked outside after Monday morning meeting and saw the statue was taped up. I thought UCLA did it or something. They told me it was just for protection, so that really set the mood for the week,” Lee said. “It’s just been awesome. It’s always about us, and it’s always about what we’re doing, but you definitely feel the energy.”
Riley and USC’s returning players all said there has not been a major overt emphasis on schooling the first-year Trojans about the history or particulars of the rivalry.
“We’re not doing anything, honestly, too specific with this rivalry. I mean, and not to discount it in any way. We’ve acknowledged that this game in some ways is going to feel different. We’ve acknowledged it is a rivalry game, there’s a lot of history behind it, it’s going to be a great game to play in. But past that I think we’re really zeroed in on what we believe is going to help us play well and that’s where our focus is going to be,” Riley said early in the week. “Other than both teams wearing home jerseys, I don’t know there’s a whole lot different, to be honest. And they’re awesome — one of the best parts of our job is getting to coach in these — but our focus is getting these guys ready to play.”
Said veteran offensive guard Justin Dedich: “Both these teams having such good records this year, the rivalry was kind of built in for these transfer kids. They know it’s a big game for us. It’s going to mean a lot — it’s a title game. So not much teaching has gone into it. I think they can kind of understand the rivalry, seeing all the stuff taped up, the importance that both schools take in it.”
USC has won five of the last seven meetings, but the Bruins delivered the blowout win in the Coliseum last year. UCLA hasn’t won back-to-back years in the rivalry since taking three straight from 2012-14.
Overall, USC is 49-33-7 with two wins vacated in in the series that goes back to 1929 and has been played every year since 1936.
And this just might be the most anticipated edition of it in a long while, even if the trash talk has been one-sided this year, many of the key players on the Trojans are new and the coaching staff isn’t making it the storyline of the week internally.
As Neilon said, it shouldn’t take any extra effort to get the message across anyway.
“If you’re not amped up for this game then something’s wrong with you,” he said.