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ONE LONGTIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL FAN’S OPINION REGARDING WHAT HAS TRULY SEPARATED UCLA’s AND USC’s TEAMS OVER THE DECADES, AS THEIR SEASONS ARE ABOUT TO BEGIN
For over three and a half decades, ever since I was a kid, I have followed college football.
How could I not considering that the area where I live and have lived for forty years has major football programs from its two biggest institutions of higher learning; UCLA, located in the tony Westside of Los Angeles, and USC, which calls the neighborhood just south of downtown L.A. home?
Although I have a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and have been a fan of all things Bruin since my adolescent years, I must admit that there was a time during my pre-teen days when I rooted for the Trojans on the gridiron, even owning a couple of cardinal and gold shirts.
Sports Illustrated’s cover during the week of the 1967 “Game of the Century”, when a 64-yard touchdown run by O.J. Simpson sparked the Trojans to a 21-20 win over the (then) top-ranked Bruins. Image courtesy of pintetest.com
In a case of rooting for whoever won, I also cheered for the Bruins in basketball, so it evened out.
I reckon I’ve attended roughly 150 UCLA football games at the Rose Bowl since my dream of being admitted to and attending that school was realized in 1988.
I know I’ve personally seen fifteen Crosstown Rivalry Clashes between the Bruins and the Trojans, going on 16 this year when they will meet for the 86th time.
After all these years of watching and observing the fortunes of both programs (and being passionate for one; being a UCLA alum you get one guess which), I recently arrived at an answer to two questions that have been on my mind for a long time:
What is the REAL difference between UCLA & USC football?
And what is the REAL reason why the Trojans have been, historically speaking, more successful than their blue-and-gold rivals?
My answer to these questions can be summed up in one word:
Marcus Allen (#33) carrying the ball during a rivalry clash in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy of thecomeback.com
Simply put, ‘SC has had more player depth on their football squads than UCLA has had over the years.
As an illustration of that, I can recall two occasions where the Trojans could boast of having two Heisman Trophy winners playing in their backfield at the same time: Charles White and Marcus Allen in 1978 and ’79, and Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush from 2003-05
With only one player in its history who has that coveted trophy, Gary Beban, the Bruins can never claim that distinction.
Throughout their history, and certainly during the years where they dominated college football with their 33 appearances in the Rose Bowl and eleven national titles, USC’s depth was such where their third string players could easily be stars for almost any other team in the country.
UCLA’s Skip Hicks getting some yardage during 1996’s Crosstown Clash, which featured the only overtime game in rivalry history, won by the Bruins 48-41. Photo courtesy of foxsports.com
Having more players taken in the NFL draft (497) and more players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (12) than any other school is an excellent illustration of the Trojans’ depth.
Matt Cassel is likewise a perfect example as the quarterback played four years at ‘SC from 2001-04 and not only never started a game behind center, he never threw even one touchdown pass!
Yet he has been quite solid in the pros, throwing over 100 TD passes in an 11-year career.
Meanwhile in Westwood, a significant factor in UCLA’s most successful seasons was the fact that its starters stayed healthy during those years.
It was the case during the Bruins’ lone national championship season in 1954 as well as the years where they won ten games in 1982, 1987-88, 1997-98, 2005, and in 2013-14.
A Bruin blocking a Trojan punt during UCLA’s 38-28 triumph in 2012, shattering a three-game losing streak to the Trojans. Photo courtesy of theatlantic.com
Though current coach Jim Mora and his staff have been working on that depth, and it’s starting to get better, the fact remains that like it pretty much has always been, injuries to starters and key players means doom for UCLA’s chances.
The perfect illustration of that was last year, when the Bruins’ season essentially ended on its practice field when Myles Jack, a star linebacker who was the go-to guy on defense, tore his ACL and was done for 2015.
Losing key defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes in the team’s first game maimed that defense, but Jack’s injury killed it.
One more example of this historical lack of depth that UCLA has suffered from must be mentioned:
Quarterback Ben Olson.
I remember Bruin Nation being jubilant when this young man, who was the nation’s top recruit in high school with an absolute cannon for an arm that the Bruins desperately needed, arrived in Westwood after serving a Mormon mission.
USC’s Todd Spencer during the Crosstown Rivalry Clash at the Coliseum in 1981, the last year that both teams called that place home. Photo courtesy of insidesocal.com
Olson would go on to be arguably the most injury-prone athlete in UCLA history as he seemed to be unable to play consecutive games before being knocked out for the season.
And let’s face it – with all due respect to him, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a backup to Olson who was pressed into service when he went down, just couldn’t cut it.
As for USC, the only instance of them lacking depth in recent memory was when thirty of their scholarships were cut due to the sanctions imposed upon them in 2010.
The fact that UCLA’s football program has generally been a successful one despite their relative lack of depth historically, with the Bruins earning their share of conference championships (17), Rose Bowl berths (13), and top ten finishes (14), is a significant accomplishment.
The question is, can Mora complete his mission to obtain a level of depth that would equal the crosstown rivals?
I know it’s a cliché I’m about to state but…
Time will tell.
And hopefully it will be sooner than later.
UCLA’s Brett Hundley looking to pass in a rain-soaked Crosstown Rivalry Clash in 2012. Photo courtesy of bleachereport.com