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UCLA football prepares for rivalry redemption attempt against USC

USC quarterback Caleb Williams falls toward the end zone against UCLA football. Williams notched three total touchdowns in the Trojans’ 48-45 win over the Bruins in 2022. (Daily Bruin file photo)


Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

By Gavin Carlson

Nov. 16, 2023 9:33 p.m.

There was little debate about the stature of USC quarterback Caleb Williams when he squared off against UCLA at the Rose Bowl last season.

Williams was in the midst of a Heisman-level campaign, and he improved his chances with a 470-yard, three total touchdown performance to knock off the Bruins in a high-scoring classic.

But heading into Saturday’s matchup between crosstown rivals, Williams is nowhere to be found in the 2023 Heisman conversation.

Despite this, coach Chip Kelly said the reigning Heisman winner is still at the top of the mountain.

“When you watch that guy on film, you can’t tell me that there’s a better player in the country than him,” Kelly said. “If the award is supposed to go to the best player in the country, that kid is as good a football player as I’ve had the opportunity to coach against.”

Much like UCLA football (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12), USC (7-4, 5-3) and Williams are on a two-game losing streak heading into 2023’s edition of the Battle for Los Angeles. And while the Bruins’ quarterback situation remains up in the air for Saturday’s afternoon kickoff at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Trojans’ No. 1 choice is clear.

Williams and the USC offense have been more prolific this year than in 2022.

After averaging 41.4 points per game last campaign, the Trojans have increased that average to 43.8 points per contest in 2023, even without now-NFL wide receiver Jordan Addison and with sky-high expectations heading into the season.

Williams has been better individually in several statistical categories as well.

Both his completion percentage of 67.9% and yards per attempt of 9.4 are career-bests, and his 172.1 passer rating is noticeably higher than his 168.5 rating from 2022.

In addition to his elite arm-talent, Williams possesses skills with his legs that redshirt senior defensive back Kenny Churchwell III said the Bruins must be ready for.

“We just got to keep him caged up and hold on for dear life sometimes because he’s a really good athlete,” Churchwell said.

Opposite Williams, it’s unclear who will be the starting quarterback for UCLA in this year’s rivalry game.

Redshirt junior quarterback Collin Schlee exited last Saturday’s home loss against Arizona State with an injury, and both redshirt junior Ethan Garbers and freshman Dante Moore did not play after leaving the previous week’s contest with injuries.

Before the trio of quarterbacks was injured, UCLA managed to score 10 points against Arizona. And with Schlee and senior Chase Griffin taking the snaps last week, the Bruins were shut out through three quarters and held to seven points for only the second time this season against the Sun Devils.

UCLA scored 45 combined points in its last three contests. That’s the same point tally the Bruins scored in last year’s rivalry game alone, and even that figure wasn’t enough to knock off Williams and the Trojans in 2022.

Overall, scoring has not been an issue for either team in recent years of this matchup.

Each side has scored at least 33 points in the last four editions of the rivalry. The last time either UCLA or USC failed to score at least 23 points was in 2016, when the Bruins were held to 14.

Regardless of who leads UCLA’s offense Saturday, they’ll be filling the shoes of former Bruin quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Behind his six total touchdowns in 2021, UCLA set a program high in the history of the rivalry with a 62-33 win.

Redshirt senior defensive lineman Carl Jones Jr. said one memory stands out the most from that blowout victory.

“Waving the flag afterwards,” Jones said. “It was all around fun.”

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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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