USC, No. 22 UCLA face off for Pac-12 South title at Coliseum
Along with the Victory Bell and Los Angeles bragging rights, the winner at the Coliseum on Saturday will claim the Pac-12 South title and a spot in the conference championship game against Stanford next week.
Yet the local stakes loom equally large for Kessler and the Trojans (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12), who have lost three straight games to their closest rivals.
Three years under the thumb of the Bruins (8-3, 5-3) is an awfully long time in L.A., where everyone from alumni to recruits is aware of the tidal shift toward Westwood.
Kessler isn't keen on the possibility of leaving USC without a win over UCLA. The quarterback would love to collect every reward still available to the Trojans in the final game of a tumultuous regular season.
''We've got an opportunity to do something great, and these chances don't come very often,'' Kessler said. ''It's weird how it happened, but at the end of the day, we're playing for a Pac-12 South championship, and we know UCLA has the same mindset.''
This rivalry's momentum moves in waves: The Bruins dominated the 1990s, while USC largely controlled the 2000s. Lane Kiffin's Trojans hung a 50-0 embarrassment on the Bruins in 2011, but UCLA has won the last three in largely convincing fashion, including an impressive 35-14 victory in their last trip to the Coliseum two years ago.
USC has emerged from a midseason coaching change with a solid season under Clay Helton, the fourth USC head coach that Mora has faced during his four years running the Bruins. Mora has never lost to USC, a school he rarely deigns to address by name.
But while UCLA is one win away from a resilient finish to the season, the Trojans could write a feel-good finish to their troubles at home.
''I told the guys, `Don't make this about the seniors,''' Kessler said. ''`It's about the whole team. You guys have been through a lot, too. It hasn't been just us.'''
Here are some more things to watch in the 85th edition of the game with no official nickname:
HELTON'S CHANCE: In sharp contrast to two years ago, there is exceptionally little chatter about USC's head coaching position this week. Helton is 4-2 with a four-game winning streak sandwiched between losses to Notre Dame and Oregon. The longtime offensive coordinator has done about as well as could be expected in brutal circumstances, but Helton realizes the extraordinary expectations at USC. ''It takes a special person to step into that role and keep it going the way that he has,'' Mora said of Helton. ''That's a tremendously talented team, and he's done a tremendous job of keeping them on track.''
UNDER CENTER: While UCLA has its longest winning streak in the rivalry in nearly two decades, the Bruins also have much less experience at quarterback. Josh Rosen has never faced the Trojans or the Coliseum's pressure, but the smooth freshman also hasn't thrown an interception in 218 passes and has been sacked only 11 times in Pac-12 play.
ROSEN'S TURN: Rattling Rosen and limiting his movement will be central challenges for USC's defense, which was carved up by Oregon's Vernon Adams Jr. last week. ''He does not look like a freshman,'' USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said of Rosen. ''He is not a guy that stares at one guy. He goes through progressions like a veteran quarterback.''
HEALTHY WIDEOUT? JuJu Smith-Schuster has been USC's most consistent offensive playmaker on a unit full of five-star talent. He ranks sixth nationally with 110 yards receiving per game along with 68 receptions and 10 TD catches despite struggling with several injuries. He pronounced himself at 75 percent health earlier in the week despite problems with his ankle and leg and a broken hand.
SO MANY COLORS: As usual, both teams will wear their home jerseys for the crosstown showdown. The Bruins broke with that revived tradition by debuting an all-white uniform at the Coliseum in 2011 - and then they lost by 50 points and got coach Rick Neuheisel fired.