This preview will provide the evidence.
Southern Cal started the year with sophomore JT Daniels commanding the offense until he was hurt in the first game of the season. It was looking like the season may suffer until freshman Kedon Slovis took the field and proved everyone wrong.
Let’s take a look at the rest of the offense and how everything has come together.
Slovis is certainly the man at this point and Daniels has more than likely lost his starting job to the freshman phenom. He has a QB rating just under 163 and a 70% completion percentage. He has over 2,700 yards and 24 touchdowns in ten games and averages 272.7 yards per game.
Slovis has some amazing receivers to throw to. So, he definitely isn’t struggling to get the ball to anyone. However, he is capable of throwing interceptions and his freshman-ness shows when opposing teams are able to get him rattled. The teams that have beaten the Trojans this year have been able to break through the offensive line and put major pressure on the passing game. For example, in Washington’s 28-14 victory over Southern Cal, the Husky defense was able to pick Slovis off three times and log five tackles for a loss. Notre Dame barely beat Southern Cal 30-27, but you can bet four sacks and seven QB hurries contributed to that win.
Redshirt sophomore Brett Neilon will be at center and this is his first year as a starter. He did see game action in jumbo packages last year, appearing in six games. On the left, redshirt sophomore Alijah Vera-Tucker will play guard while junior Austin Jackson returns as the starting left tackle and he is one of the more veteran members of the line.
On the right side, redshirt sophomore Jalen McKenzie will start at guard and graduate transfer Drew Richmond will play tackle. McKenzie actually started two games last year, including the 2018 loss to UCLA. Richmond was a three-year starter for Tennessee where he played on both the left and right sides.
This line is actually fairly comparable to UCLA in both size and experience. If the Bruin defense is on point, they will be able to put pressure on Slovis and get him to make some of those freshman mistakes that can turn into points for UCLA.
It’s never fun to say Southern Cal has the Bruins beat at something but, when it comes to receivers, the Trojans have this one on lock. Senior Michael Pittman Jr. has 82 receptions for 1,118 yards and nine touchdowns. So, UCLA might want to consider double-teaming him on Saturday. He was deservedly named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award and is credited with a game saving catch against Colorado on October 25. Coverage is going to be key for the UCLA secondary and shutting down the passing game is essential for the win.
In addition to Pittman, redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns has 62 catches for 752 yards and five touchdowns while sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown has hauled it in 60 times for 751 yards and six touchdowns. Vaughns will be a game-time decision, as he has been nursing an ankle injury. He returned to practice Thursday and may see limited time on the field. Freshman Drake London has been used to a lesser degree, but has successfully filled in for Vaughns and scored three touchdowns.
Even when Pittman leaves after this year, Vaughns and St. Brown will continue the tradition of great Trojan receivers.
The running backs have suffered several injuries. Redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai has been out with a knee injury and is going to be yet another game-day decision. Junior Stephen Carr had a hamstring injury and missed three games, but is expected to be available Saturday after returning last week. Carr has been one of the top Trojan rushers with 56 carries and 322 yards. Markese Stepp tore ligament in his ankle which required surgery a few weeks ago and was expected to miss up to five weeks. He will probably be out this weekend. Freshman Kenan Christon has filled in nicely, putting up 390 yards and scoring two touchdowns in five games.
Southern Cal definitely relies more on the passing game than the run game, but that’s not to say they can’t gain yards on the ground. While they are a bit banged up at this position, UCLA can’t take anything for granted in this rivalry game.
Rivalry games are awesome because upsets, running up the score, and awesome plays are always part of the game. With a year’s worth of bragging rights on the line, both teams are not going to take anything lying down. The key to a UCLA win is going to be to shutting down the Trojan passing game. Their defense and run game are both pretty banged up. So, if the Bruins can make Pittman and St. Brown work and rattle Slovis, UCLA just might be one step closer to bowl eligibility.