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UCLA-Southern Cal Preview: Trojans' Not So Special Teams & Head Coach in the Waiting?

It's the biggest game of the year for the Bruins, with Mora's struggling Bruins heading across town to take on a surging Southern Cal team that is playing well for interim (perhaps soon-to-be permanent) head coach Ed Orgeron. With Westwood in the middle of Beat SC Week, we begin our preview of our crosstown rivals from Southern Cal by looking at their interim head coach and their special teams unit.

His name is Eric Kendricks. What does he do?  He blocks punts!
His name is Eric Kendricks. What does he do? He blocks punts!
Harry How

With the Pac-12 South locked up the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Rose Bowl last weekend, this week's annual crosstown battle between our Bruins and the Southern Cal Trojans doesn't have the same conference-title impacting implications it used to (and should), but there's a lot on the line.  Besides the obvious pride and bragging rights in Los Angeles, both teams need a win in a desperate fight to secure better bowl options, especially with Oregon falling out of the BCS at-large picture. But it goes beyond that, both head coaches come into this Saturday's game in critical need of a win: for Jim Mora, he has to drop the Trojans to break the worrying trend of UCLA faltering at the end of the year under his watch and to salvage a season where the minimum expectations were 9 wins, beating Southern Cal again, and winning the Pac-12 South.  For Trojan interim head coach Ed Orgeron, he's the presumptive favorite to win Pac-12 coach of the year based on what he's done so far to salvage a Southern Cal season that looked to be on course for disaster under Lane Kiffin, but with Pat Haden openly courting Jack Del Rio, his top candidate, Orgeron needs a big win over UCLA to cement his claim to the permanent job and put pressure on Haden to keep him at the helm.

On paper, "Coach O" doesn't exactly have an outstanding resume as a college head coach going 10-25 at Ole Miss from 2005 through 2007, including a dismal 3-21 SEC record.  His only bright-side at Ole Miss?  Landing that Michael Oher kid that was featured in The Blind Side, although an elite offensive lineman landing at a dismal Ole Miss program seemed fishy, especially when his HS coach (Hugh Freeze, who ironically is running the Ole Miss program) got hired by Orgeron a mere three weeks after Oher was signed.  With the Trojans, Ed has dramatically improved, running off a 6-1 record in his second stint as a head coach, his sole loss coming to Notre Dame.  Most of his coaching career has been spent handling some defensive unit (typically the line) and recruiting - where he's widely praised as an expert brown-bag-of-cash man recruiter.  He's never been more than a glorified cheerleader during the Carroll regime, and except for his short stint at Ole Miss, has never had any real coaching responsibility, having never served as an offensive or defensive coordinator.  But the kids at Southern Cal love him and the soft conference schedule (Utah at home, a very weak Oregon State, a pitiful Berkeley squad, and Colorado) that only had one tough game (home versus a Stanford team probably looking ahead to a chance to wreck their rivals at Berkeley for the Axe) has let him build up a nice resume to put in front of ol' Ethical Pat.

Oh, and in case you forgot, Ed O. hired Noel Mazzone for the 2005 season as the Rebels' offensive coordinator.  Their relationship lasted one year, with Orgeron firing Mazzone at the end of the season: the two former friends are professionally courteous to one another, but as Ed O. himself admits, they're not exactly close anymore.  Yeah, firing a guy after only giving him one season will do that.  So let's hope that Mazzone pulls out all the stops in a full-court effort to embarrass the man who gave him his walking papers.  Nothing warms Bruin hearts quite like a total curb-stomping blow-out of the cheaters from across town.  But, if Orgeron somehow manages to pull it out and beat Mora (which shouldn't happen given that UCLA has 85 scholarship players to Southern Cal's sanctioned-limited 55) on Saturday, the question will be whether Haden will stick with the popular but relatively inexperienced Orgeron or the seasoned NFL veteran (and Trojan alum) Jack Del Rio?

Turning to the Trojans' special teams unit, it has really been a less-than-special teams unit except for one man: punt returner Nelson Agholor who needs to be Coach Ulbrich's main focus heading into this Saturday's game. In the return game, the Trojans have a lot of familiar faces, but except for primary punter returner Nelson Agholor, seemed to have regressed from last year.  Last year, stand-out WR Marqise Lee handled the overwhelming majority of kick returns, posting 30 returns, 28.5 yards per return, with a long of 100 yards, and 1 return TD.  This year?  The Trojans have used three return men primarily this year: Lee (8 returns, 18.9 yards per return, long of 34 yards), sophomore CB Kevon Seymour (7 returns, 13.1 yards per return, long of 33), and Agholor, the sophomore WR (6 returns, 16.8 yards per return, long of 25 yards) and have yet to find anyone able to replicate Lee's dynamic return game from 2012.  On the other hand, the punt return game has been phenomenal compared to last season: last year, junior WR Robert Woods handled the majority of punt return duties, returning 17 punts with a measly 3.6 yards per return and a long of 31.  Since Woods bailed on the sinking Trojan ship for the NFL, Agholor has been tapped as the Trojans' primary PR man and he's been nothing short of outstanding: returning 14 punts for 22.9 yards per return, with a long of 93 yards, and 2 TDs.  While the Bruins won't have much to worry about on the kick-off returns, Agholor presents UCLA a real threat with the ball in his hands following punts, so Covington is going to have to be on his A-game to give his coverage team the best opportunity to keep Agholor from having space and time to make a play in a game where one big special teams play could decide the outcome.  Despite that, long gone are the days of human joystick (and semi-professional college player) Reggie Bush destroying teams in the return game, so in comparison, this Trojan return team is decidedly human when compared to Bush's sometimes Superman efforts.

In the kicking game, the Trojans will turn to redshirt sophomore punter Kris Albarado (69 punts, 37.4 yards per punt, long of 64 yards, 26 inside the 20), who is replacing "graduating" (because really, does getting a degree there actually count) redshirt senior Kyle Negrete (44 punts, 42.7 yards per punt, long of 65 yards, 20 inside the 20).  So far, Albarado hasn't been much of a drop-off from Negrete, although his rate of putting it inside the 20 is a bit of a drop-off from 2012.  If the game comes down to a field goal, you have to like the Bruins' chances with Southern Cal turning to unreliable junior kicker Andre Heidari.  If you forgot, he's the guy who had his 38-yard field goal attempt in last year's game blocked two plays after Anthony Barr ended Matt Barkley's college career in epic fashion.  Last year Heidari was pretty mediocre, going 10-16 (62.5%) with a long of 41 yards.  Inside the 30, he was money, hitting 4-4, but past the 30 yard line, it became a roll of the dice (4-6 from 30-39 yards, 2-6 from 40-49 yards).  This year?  More of the same: he's gone 14-21 (66.7%) with a long of 52 and has been a risky call from deep (4-6 from 30-39 yards, 3-8 from 40-49 yards), so the field position battle will be important in keeping the Trojans from letting their kicker get them consolation points when their drives stall out in UCLA territory.

It's the biggest game of the year and an absolute must-win for Jim Mora against Ed Orgeron.  The Pac-12 South crown is gone but if Mora wants to salvage this season, he'll need to overcome a glorified cheerleader coaching to win the permanent job at one of the premier programs in the country who has his limited roster of 55 scholarship athletes fired up on pure emotion.  There's no excuse for Jim and his 85 scholarship players to not get it done in the Coliseum.  Total victory or don't bother coming back.