|No. 11 USC, UCLA share mutual admiration for QBs|
LOS ANGELES -- The word rivalry when applied to college football might invoke thoughts of hostility, but Saturday's matchup between UCLA and No. 11 USC at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum takes on a sort of mutual admiration.
In its 88th year, the crosstown showdown features two of the most lauded quarterbacks in the nation, USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen. Both are products of nearby high schools, signing to their respective schools in 2015. Both are widely considered potential first-round picks in next spring's NFL draft.
Their proximity over the years fosters a familiarity within their rival programs that manifests as respect.
"Being a quarterback coach by trade, it's been very unique to watch him grow up and become such a special player," USC coach Clay Helton said. "I think I've watched his Arizona State game last week about a half-dozen times, because he performed magnificently."
The Arizona State game to which Helton referred marked Rosen's return from a one-game layoff because of injury. The quarterback led UCLA (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) to a 44-37 win, critical to keeping the Bruins' bowl-game aspirations alive, with 381 yards passing and a touchdown, with another score rushing.
The UCLA offense is one of the best in FBS via the pass with a healthy Rosen in the lineup.
From the junior leagues in south coastal Los Angeles, to leading a high-powered attack in the Pac-12, Helton has seen Rosen come a long way.
"I've been (at USC) 8 years now, and I've had the opportunity to watch Josh grow up," Helton said. "He actually was on my son (Reid Helton)'s Pop Warner team when he was in seventh grade. To be able to see him grow into the man he's become and the player he's become has been fun."
Not far down the freeway in the Orange County community of San Clemente, Darnold received a litany of scholarship offers from programs across the country -- including UCLA.
UCLA football and San Clemente High School share strong bonds. Nick Pasquale, a former San Clemente standout, died in 2013 while a member of the UCLA team. The Live Like Nick Foundation raises scholarship money in Nick's name, and his legacy lives on through that mantra -- a mantra Darnold wears on his wrist with a bracelet.
"It doesn't surprise me that Nick impacted Sam, because he impacted many, many, many people," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "And it doesn't surprise me, just knowing the character of Sam Darnold I've come to know in our brief interactions, and just reading about him or hearing him speak."
Darnold has his own admirer and someone he's impacted in Cade Spinello, an 11-year-old from Mission Viejo, Calif., who signed a letter of intent with UCLA in 2016 while battling a brain tumor. Spinello is a fixture at Bruins home games, but is also a fan of Darnold.
"Sam's one heck of a good kid. I'm glad (Spinello) is a fan of Sam's," Mora said. "He's picking the right models."
While there is no doubt respect between the programs -- a byproduct of the two campuses being separated by just 10 miles, according to Helton -- both aim to win Saturday in pursuit of different goals.
USC (9-2, 7-1) clinched the Pac-12 South division title with a 38-24 win last week at Colorado, but the Trojans still have an outside chance of factoring into the College Football Playoff race.
They have come on strong since losing at Notre Dame on Oct. 21, winning three straight over a span in which running back Ronald Jones II rushed for 552 yards. Conversely, UCLA comes in with the worst rushing defense in the nation, surrendering 302.3 yards per game on the ground.
Arizona State racked up 294 yards rushing in UCLA's win last week, but the Bruins' ability to stuff the Sun Devils in the red zone proved critical.
"Our guys played really well in the red zone," UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said in his post-game press conference. "We held them to field goals, which in the end was obviously the turning point in this game."
USC has not been great offensively in the red zone, converting opportunities into touchdowns only 57.8 percent of the time to rank No. 82 in FBS. The Bruins will need to be able to exploit this weakness to spring an upset, as well as effectively attack the Trojans with the pass on the other end.
Rosen's return to the lineup makes that possible, particularly with UCLA also getting wide receiver Jordan Lasley back from suspension last week. Lasley caught for 162 yards and a touchdown against Arizona State.
"We've lost a lot of yards with (tight end) Caleb Wilson being out and Darren Andrews being out. Darren had 10 touchdown catches," Mora said. "Having Jordan back in there gives us a playmaker when we've lost a couple."
Turnovers could also factor into UCLA's upset hopes. Darnold has been prone to giveaways, particularly early in the season when he threw nine of his 11 interceptions, but a clean sheet at Colorado continued the quarterback's recent trend of more careful ball control.
"Whenever I can play a really clean game, it's always nice," Darnold said in his postgame press conference. "I'm sure that the defense loves it too, being able to know that there's not going to be a quick turnaround, and that they won't have to sit down on the bench and then get right back up."