We did a Q&A with Sam Strong, a senior staff writer and columnist at UCLA's student-run newspaper, The Daily Bruin.
Here are his answers to our questions:
1. Assess Jim Mora's performance as head coach this year. How surprised are you at the success he's had in Year 1?
Very surprised. We all thought he would be successful because of the non-nonsense attitude he brought to the program from day 1 but nobody saw this coming. UCLA's games are meaningful again and the Bruins are a lock to go to a bowl game that doesn't flip an Oreo instead of a coin. Speaking of coin flips, Mora still reminds us this is his first go-around in college football at times. He kept his team in the locker room too long against Arizona State, forcing his captains to be late to the flip, which resulted in fifth-year senior punter Jeff Locke choosing to kickoff rather than defer. UCLA had to kickoff twice and narrowly beat the Sun Devils on a game-winning field goal. It isn't always pretty, like when UCLA nearly blew a 30-point halftime lead at Washington State last week, but Mora has certainly changed the mentality for the better.
2. With the Bruins' pass defense being ranked so low, what will it take for the Bruins to shut down the Barkley-Woods-Lee trio?
If UCLA senior cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester double-teamed Lee on every play, he still goes for over 100 yards receiving on Saturday. The Bruins secondary is the weakest part of their team by a long shot, which doesn't bode well for this week. Hester and Price draw pass interference flags at an alarming rate and the safties aren't much better. UCLA will find success on defense if it can pressure USC quarterback Matt Barkley and force him to throw it earlier than he wants to. If last year's 50-0 thrashing is any indication, it will be a long night for UCLA's defensive backs.
3. What has been the biggest difference this year for Jonathan 'Jetski' Franklin?
Without question, it's offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's horizontal scheme. Franklin was nearing the 1,000-yard mark in former coach Rick Neuheisel's pistol attack but he was doing it largely by running between the tackles. Mazzone's swing-pass heavy, spread out scheme has not only benefited Franklin but it fits UCLA's offensive athletes much better. The change in system has also benefited the offensive line and quarterback positions greatly as it required the signal caller to get rid of the ball quickly, limiting the time the Bruins young offensive line need to hold its blocks.
4. Did you expect Brett Hundley to be this good, this quickly? Could he have saved Rick Neuheisel's job if he played last year?
Definitely not. We all knew he was a phenomenal athlete but his timing and pocket presence were seriously lacking in Neuheisel's practices last season. Neuheisel deserves a lot of credit for doing what he thought was best for Hundley and keeping his redshirt season in tact, despite the mounting pressure on Neuheisel to win late in the season if he wanted to save his job. UCLA's problems under Neuheisel went far beyond the quarterback position. While playing Hundley may have resulted in one, maybe two more wins, Rick was headed for the door either way after the "Disaster in the Desert," a 48-12 loss to Arizona in Tucson in which a brawl broke out at halftime, courtesy of a streaker.
5. What's something Hundley does that USC could exploit?
As most young quarterbacks do, especially those that are as speedy as Hundley, he often looks to take off running when his first or second option isn't available. The Trojans could expedite that process by exploiting UCLA's young offensive line all while keeping contain on the edges. In a 21-14 win over Utah earlier this season, the Utes superior defensive line did a nice job of getting to Hundley but couldn't get him down after he escaped the pocket, as he took off 15 times for 68 yards and a touchdown. If 'SC's secondary can lock down UCLA's receivers, the line can get good pressure and its linebackers can stay home on Hundley, albeit a tall order, the Trojans will find success.
6. Who are a couple players under the radar that could end up making a big impact on the game?
UCLA has been surviving on offense over the last couple weeks while missing some of its most explosive playmakers because of injuries. Redshirt junior running back Damien Thigpen looks to be back this weekend which could spell trouble for the Trojans. Thigpen has battled injuries throughout his four years at UCLA but he might be the fastest player on the roster. Defensively, freshman safety Randall Goforth - the victim of an internet troll creating a fake Twitter handle on his behalf and trying to start something with USC junior receiver Robert Woods - has impressed me. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time and he has shown the ability to field a punt, something redshirt freshman Steven Manfro couldn't seem to do as he muffed three in three consecutive weeks.
7. Prediction? Does UCLA snap the five-game win streak in the rivalry?
45-38, USC. Every other position group matchup on the field seems to be somewhat even but USC's receivers' advantage over UCLA's defensive backs is too vast for the Bruins to steal their second crosstown classic in 14 years.