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Scouting report: UCLA football vs. USC

By Francis Moon and Gavin Carlson

Nov. 17, 2022 11:15 p.m.

Though it fumbled its College Football Playoff aspirations with an upset loss against unranked Arizona last week, No. 16 UCLA football (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) will take on No. 7 USC (9-1, 7-1) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday in a matchup that still has Pac-12 championship implications. The Bruins will also have a chance to put a dent in the Trojans’ CFP hopes and keep the Victory Bell in Westwood following a blowout win over their crosstown rivals last season. Here is this week’s scouting report from senior staffer Francis Moon and staff writer Gavin Carlson.

USC’s offense
Offensive scheme: Air-raid
Run-pass percentage: 51.4% pass, 48.6% run
Strength: World-class passing game
Weakness: Loss of RB Travis Dye

X-factor: WR Jordan Addison

In many ways, the blue and gold faced USC-lite last week with Arizona paying a visit to the Rose Bowl.

The Wildcats’ seventh-ranked passing offense coming into the game was led by a dual-threat quarterback who has some of the best weapons in the conference at his disposal, all within an offensive system willing to air it out at all costs.

That sure sounds a lot like the Trojans.

But Arizona still ranked outside the top 40 in points per game against FBS schools before its 34-point performance at the Rose Bowl last Saturday.

USC’s offense, on the other hand, ranks third in the entire country, averaging 42.4 points per game.

The Wildcats’ explosiveness was too much for the Bruins to handle, so it’s probably best to expect a 50-point performance from coach Lincoln Riley’s Trojans on Saturday.

Like Arizona, USC has premier weapons all over the field, but the Trojans’ offensive dominance starts with their superstar quarterback, Caleb Williams.

The sophomore followed Riley to USC from Oklahoma after earning the starting quarterback role for the Sooners midway through last season, and he has risen to true Heisman contender status in his first season in Southern California.

Williams is the ultimate dual-threat.

Through the air, he leads the conference and is tied for third in the entire country with 31 passing touchdowns, ranks sixth nationally in quarterback rating at 84.9, and his 3,010 passing yards rank 10th in the country. On the ground, he’s rushed for another six touchdowns and is able to extend plays behind the line of scrimmage as well as any player in college football.

Earlier in the season on a play from his own 12-yard line against Utah, Williams eluded a free pass rusher all the way back at his own goal line, made another two defenders miss in the backfield and proceeded to outrun another pair of defenders all the way to the 29-yard line in one of the more impressive scrambles you’ll see.

If UCLA couldn’t contain Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura’s scrambling, it certainly won’t be able to contain Williams.

De Laura’s scrambling can be magical at times, but Williams is Houdini almost all the time. And unlike de Laura or most scrambling quarterbacks, Williams has been near-flawless in his decision-making and ability to take care of the football.

USC is tied for the least interceptions thrown this season with two, and Williams leads the country in touchdown-to-interception ratio.

His ability to evade pass rushers and chaos in the pocket before delivering perfectly accurate strikes downfield is matched by few talents in the entire country. It’s a large reason why one scout even proclaimed this week that Williams could be the No. 1 quarterback picked in the 2024 NFL Draft.

It wasn’t impossible to predict success from Williams under Riley coming into their first season at USC.

Riley established himself as one of the best offensive minds in college football and helped two former Oklahoma quarterbacks – Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray – earn back-to-back Heisman Trophy awards before each going No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft.

The Trojans not only went out and got Riley and Williams, but they also earned several high-profile transfers on the offensive side of the ball in wide receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams and running back Travis Dye.

Riley’s ability to scheme his players into great situations and the immense talents of those players has made the USC offense downright unfair at times. Addison was named the best wide receiver in college football last season with Pittsburgh, and now he gets schemed into wide open situations consistently with endless screen plays, motions and creative misdirections.

Dye was carted off the field with a serious leg injury in the Trojans’ most recent game, so the Bruins won’t have to worry about him. But Mario Williams is back after missing the past three games while Addison hardly played last week after missing the previous two as well.

USC somehow didn’t miss a beat without them and averaged 47 points per game in its last three contests. Now, the Trojans’ offense could be at its best Saturday in the Rose Bowl, and the blue and gold simply don’t have the talent to stop them.

Coach Chip Kelly’s offense might have to score 60 against USC for the second straight season if it wants to earn the upset win.

USC’s defense
Defensive scheme: 3-4
Strength: Defensive Line
Weakness: Inconsistency
X-factor: DL Tuli Tuipulotu

While the Trojans’ offense was overhauled in the offseason, their defense largely remained the same – for better or worse.

After giving up the second-most points in the conference last year along with the third-most total yards, it has improved to fourth and sixth in those categories, respectively.

But the numbers don’t tell the full story, as this defense is as flawed and susceptible to big plays as any team the Bruins have faced this year.

While USC holds the top spot in the Pac-12 standings, it has largely been fueled by its new-look offense while the defense does just enough to win games. Giving up 35 points to California’s bottom-tier offense two weeks ago marked a low point for a passable but inconsistent unit, partly as a result of both injuries and underperformance.

For a team with championship aspirations, first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch – who followed Riley from Oklahoma – will have to reach deep into his bag to keep his team’s hopes alive.

Shane Lee, a transfer from Alabama, marks the most significant new addition, as the inside linebacker leads the team with 56 tackles while also grabbing an interception in week one.

Alongside fellow inside linebacker Eric Gentry – who possesses elite versatility in different schemes because of his 6-foot-6 frame – the duo has acted as leaders in the middle of the defense when healthy.

Both are currently dealing with injuries, however, with Gentry having last played Oct. 15, and it remains to be seen if either will be available or at full health. Having both on the field would be a huge boost on the defensive end for the Trojans.

Defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu headlines the front seven, leading the nation with 11.5 sacks on the year. USC has shown a tendency to put solid pressure on the opposing quarterback, albeit inconsistently, and it would be best served to give its best shot at keeping redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the pocket.

The Bruins have shown to be at their best when their running game gets going, however, and with the aggression of the Trojans’ defense – which ranks in the bottom half of the conference with 141.5 rushing yards allowed per game – expect them to commit to stopping the run often.

In its six-point win over Cal, it didn’t matter that USC was able to shut down the Golden Bears’ run game as it gave up 406 yards and three touchdowns through the air. The secondary has proved to be exploitable, with several blown coverages leading to big plays every game.

Even still, Thompson-Robinson must remain mindful to be mistake-free against the conference leaders in interceptions with 15 on the year. Defensive back Calen Bullock leads the Trojans with four picks, while fellow defensive backs Max Williams and Mekhi Blackmon also possess big-play abilities.

USC has not been able to make all aspects of its defense truly click at once this year, but it’s now or never against the best offense the Trojans have faced this season.

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Francis Moon | Sports senior staff
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
Moon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, track and field and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and women's tennis beats, while also contributing for Arts. He is a fourth-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student.
Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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