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The 4 biggest keys in the USC vs. UCLA battle for Pac-12 contention

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UCLA's is fast-paced and efficient, and USC handles fast-paced and efficient offenses. Saturday night's Rose Bowl battle for Los Angeles (8 p.m. ET, ABC) is important, hate-filled, and full of fascinating matchups.

UCLA beat Virginia by eight, Memphis by seven, Colorado by three, and California by two. The Bruins spent most of September looking nothing like the Pac-12 contender many fancied them to be, then lost two games to begin October. They disappeared, ceding control of the South to an Arizona State team they had beaten by 35.

None of this is how you craft a memorable season. Yet, as UCLA gets ready to host No. 19 USC on Saturday night, there is a truth that we didn't expect: all of UCLA's goals are still on the table.

Arizona State's upset loss to Oregon State thrust UCLA back into the driver's seat. The Bruins rank ninth in the Playoff rankings, second among two-loss teams. Beat USC, stomp Stanford, and beat Oregon in the Pac-12 title, and the Bruins might be a couple of upsets -- Texas over TCU or Wisconsin over Ohio State or Kansas State over Baylor -- from serious consideration.

This isn't a smoke-and-mirrors job. UCLA hasn't played like a title contender, but the Bruins have played at the overall level that was expected: they were projected 16th in the F/+ rankings, and they rank 17th. A 5-1 record in one-possession games suggests they're playing with fire. But they have looked the part in November, holding Arizona to seven points, scoring 44 on Washington, and winning comfortably.

Of course, only one team can clinch the South on Saturday, and it isn't UCLA.

USC has been the anti-UCLA. Whereas close wins have kept the Bruins afloat, close games have threatened to sink the Trojans. A week after beating Stanford, USC's defense got roughed up in a 37-31 loss to Boston College. The Trojans controlled Arizona State for 57 minutes, then blew a nine-point lead because of a 73-yarder with 2:43 left and a 46-yard Hail Mary (with the worst Hail Mary defense you'll ever see).

USC went to Utah, outgained the Utes, and lost by three on a touchdown pass with eight seconds remaining. USC is 7-3 and 13 points from 10-0.

Still, if Washington State were to upset Arizona State in Tempe early on Saturday (which probably will not happen), USC would clinch the South with a win.

So this is a big game, huh? Let's look at the keys.

1. Porous line vs. passive front

Key Stat No. 1: USC's offense ranks 95th in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line) and 78th in standard-downs sack rate. The Trojans attempt a nearly 50-50 run-pass split on standard downs and let defenders into the backfield either way.

Key Stat No. 2: UCLA's defense ranks 100th in Stuff Rate and 91st in standard downs sack rate.

UCLA has its strong defensive moments. The Bruins have allowed only 5.2 yards per play for the season and have allowed 4.8 per play in their four games since getting pushed around by Oregon. Still, they're averaging only 5.3 tackles for loss (93rd in the country), 5.8 in the last four. The Bruins are fast and mostly sound, and they react to whatever you're trying to do, but they don't attack. They counterpunch.

Good defenses can be either aggressive or reactive; UCLA is the latter. But being the former has paid off for teams against USC. For all of the Trojans' athleticism, the line has been a sieve at times.

So what happens when a porous offense takes on a reactive defense? Does USC's leakiness result in a lot of third-and-long situations? Does UCLA's lack of aggression give USC's shaky run offense a chance to establish? If you don't stop running back Buck Allen behind the line, he's likely to run a long way. And if you don't get pressure on junior Cody Kessler, he'll pick you apart with a short pass to Nelson Agholor that's one missed tackle from a long gain.

2. Strength vs. weakness, weakness vs. strength

Key Stat No. 3: UCLA's offense ranks 26th in raw success rate (efficiency). USC's defense ranks 62nd.

Key Stat No. 4: UCLA's offense ranks 100th in IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of a team's successful plays. USC's defense ranks 34th.

Just as the UCLA defense and USC offense have contradictory personalities, the opposite can be said of the other two units. UCLA's offense is efficient and not very explosive (second and third quarters against ASU aside); USC's defense allows you to be efficient and not very explosive (final three minutes against ASU aside).

Both are good. UCLA ranks 10th in Off. F/+. USC ranks a slightly disappointing 25th in Def. F/+. UCLA murders you with tempo and seven-yard gains. USC forces you to remain patient.

So who does that favor? In terms of quality, UCLA gets the edge. The Bruins rank 23rd in Standard Downs S&P+ while USC's defense ranks just 49th. UCLA attempts balance but leans a bit on the run, and it's worked out well: sophomore Paul Perkins is one of the nation's most underrated backs, rushing for 1,172 yards (6.2 yards per carry, 6.1 highlight yards per opportunity) and taking hits away from quarterback Brett Hundley (107 carries, 725 yards). The Bruins mix in Jordan Payton (on standard downs: 58 targets, 43 catches, 422 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Devin Fuller (also on SDs: 41 targets, 34 catches, 167 yards) to keep you off-balance. The result is a high-efficiency tempo attack.

That said, USC knows how to handle efficiency-and-tempo teams. The Trojans love doing it, in fact.

3. USC vs. tempo

Key Stat No. 5: UCLA ranks 15th in Adjusted Pace.

Key Stat No. 6: USC has yet to allow even 5.0 yards per play to a team in the Adjusted Pace top 20.

I talked about Adjusted Pace at Football Study Hall last month. It is basically a comparison of your plays per game to the plays you'd be expected to run, based on your run-pass ratio. I post weekly Adj. Pace updates at the Off. S&P+ page.

UCLA is one of the country's higher-tempo offenses. It makes sense to pick up the pace when you have a high-efficiency offense. Hit a defense with a quick six-yard gain, go no-huddle, do it again. It's a great way to wear defenses down and force mistakes.

Some defenses handle tempo better than others, and USC has handled it beautifully. The Trojans have faced four offenses in the tempo top 20 and held all four below season averages. Colorado is second in Adj. Pace, and the Buffs averaged 4.2 yards per play against USC (season average: 5.3). Arizona is fourth and averaged 4.7 (5.8). Washington State is eighth and averaged 4.6 (6.2). California is 17th and averaged 4.9 (6.2).

The Trojans have allowed 4.6 yards per play against top tempo teams and 5.7 against everybody else.

USC's defensive two-deep has 12 freshmen and sophomores and only three seniors. It stands to reason that defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox might want to keep things as simple as possible for his inexperienced unit. Simplicity tends to be the best approach for handling tempo. Quick calls, quick reactions, basic techniques.

UCLA's offense is the best the Trojans have faced, and saying, "They slowed down Colorado!" is only so much of an endorsement. Still, USC has shown that this type of offense is in its wheelhouse, and if the Trojans can prevent big gashes and hold UCLA to 5.5 or fewer yards per play, the USC offense should have enough to work with to steal the win.

4. Both teams vs. the Little Things™

Key Stat No. 7: USC ranks 68th in Field Position Margin, but UCLA ranks 89th.

Key Stat No. 8: USC ranks eighth in Scoring Opportunity Margin, and UCLA ranks 23rd.

Field Position Finishing Drives
Avg. FP
(Off)
Avg. FP
(Def)
Field Position Margin
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp.
(Off)
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp
(Def)
Scoring Opp. Margin
UCLA 27.1 (122nd) 28.1 (32nd) -1.1 (89th) 5.2 (7th) 4.4 (67th) +0.8 (23rd)
USC 28.8 (98th) 28.6 (41st) +0.2 (68th) 5.1 (11th) 3.8 (21st) +1.3 (8th)

In the Little Things™ battle, USC and UCLA are almost at a draw. These things are important whether you're good or bad at them, and both are bad at field position and good at finishing drives on offense. In close matchups, these two things so frequently make the difference, and this is a pretty close matchup.