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UCLA at USC: Key Players to Watch

USC injected some hope into its fanbase with a win over Cal in which USC’s receivers dominated the game. Can USC repeat against UCLA? or is USC doomed to the same inconsistency that doomed last season?

USC v UCLA Photo by Keith Birmingham/Digital First Media/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

With a win over Cal, USC sits 7-4, and a respectable 8-4 record seems just within reach. But to get there, USC must defeat the other team in LA. Both are mired in different levels of dysfunction. Here are some players that will define the outcome:

Utah v UCLA Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Joshua Kelley

Last year’s cross town rivalry game seemed promising for the Trojans, much like the first half of most games of the 2018 season. But then Joshua Kelley broke out. Kelley put up 289 yards on the day, and USC failed to score after his 55 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

This USC team may be better than yesteryear, but that can mainly to attributed to a competent pass rush, better offensive line play, and an improved receiving corps. What USC has failed to improve in was what Kelley feasted on: rush defense. Despite having two studs anchoring the middle of the line in Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele, USC has struggled to contain runs.

The only feather in USC’s run stopping cap was limiting Cameron Scarlett and Stanford’s rushing offense in a domination at the Coliseum. But in retrospect, with Stanford at a paltry 4-6, that performance does not seem nearly as inspiring as it did in September.

USC has given up runs to the outside, quarterback scrambles, and jet sweeps all season. Kelley is perfectly positioned to take advantage of those weaknesses. Let’s see if the Trojans are up to the task.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 29 UCLA at Cincinnati Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Dorian Thompson-Robinson

Dorian Thompson-Robinson started the season as a meme. And his statistics don’t show much improvement.

On the season, Thompson-Robinson has thrown for 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, with a completion percentage of 59.9%. He averages a pedestrian 7.4 yards per attempt, and has been wont to make careless plays and interceptions.

But underneath the layer of poor decision making and careless mistakes that have limited the Bruins is a strong talent that is trying to do everything it can to carry a hapless program. Thompson-Robinson was a four star quarterback coming out of high school. Teammates with Tate Martell in perennial high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman, the two were supposed to set the college football world on fire.

Instead, Martell is riding the bench at Miami and Dorian Thompson-Robinson is trying to pull UCLA out of irrelevance.

But behind each poor decision, interception, and fumble, is the talent to make plays happen. Quarterbacks don’t go for the long shots and scrambles that Thompson-Robinson takes without the talent to make it work. And Thomspon-Robinson has the ability to make great plays out of chaos.

Here, he shows the scrambling ability, speed, and arm that made him such a touted high school prospect. And Thompson-Robinson has rushed for 168 yards on the season and three touchdowns. USC has struggled to contain and tackle mobile quarterbacks. Two games against Arizona State and Cal with limited quarterbacks may have allowed some fans to forget this, but Chip Kelly will not.

Thompson-Robinson’s play has included stunning ups and wild downs. If he balls out, USC will have to show that they can contain a runner and scrambler with incredible arm talent. Or he may just give the game to the Trojans.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 USC at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Christian Rector

I have been incredibly critical of Christian Rector this season. I have lambasted Clay Helton’s decision to name three defensive captains. I have criticized Clay Helton and Clancy Pendergast’s preference to play upperclassmen, seemingly regardless of whether the underclassmen below them are more talented. Specifically, I have questioned Rector’s ability to hold the edge.

But here I have to be fair to USC’s senior defensive captain. Rector had been dealing with an ankle injury at the time of the Notre Dame game. His play in that game, as poor as it was, can be faulted toward the coaches for playing a player who some believe was not one hundred percent.

And this is the great paradox of Christian Rector, which NFL scouts will have to reconcile with as well. With only 16 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack on the season, does Rector’s poor production reflect his play or his availability? In his playing time, he has shown his talent: he plays with solid technique and has the strength to control his gaps. But it all depends on how you see his performance against Notre Dame. Was he targeted because he was hobbled? Or was he targeted because he struggles to hold the edge against higher quality competition?

Either way, Rector has not produced like he did in his breakout sophomore season, where he had 35 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks. With a dual threat quarterback and established runningback coming into the Coliseum, Rector must show that he can be dominant at this level.

USC v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Drake London

Kedon Slovis may be the obvious answer here: after all, he is the quarterback. But at this point, I think we know who Kedon Slovis is: a pocket passer with arm talent and surprising toughness when he scrambles. Like I predicted in September, Slovis looks like a version of Josh Rosen. Against Cal, and in the first quarter at Arizona State, Slovis has shown that he can be as good as Rosen, if not better. But games like Washington and BYU show how teams have been able to confuse Slovis into poor throws and turnovers by dropping eight into coverage. But all in all, USC fans know what they are getting in Slovis.

What has been a surprise, however, has been the emergence of Drake London. With the incoming talent at the wide receiver position, fans rightly believed that the fourth receiver spot (behind Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, and Amon-Ra St. Brown) would be a revolving door including John Jackson III, Velus Jones, Drake London, and Bru McCoy. But London separated himself as the clear number four receiver. And the past couple of weeks have shown why.

London has been excellent at using his big frame to go up and get jump balls. He does lack the polish of a Amon-Ra St. Brown, but he has steadily gained the trust of Kedon Slovis and Graham Harrell throughout the season. And that’s what makes good receivers great. London’s connection with Slovis will only grow throughout time.

When USC needs a first down, don’t just look for Michael Pittman. Also look for Drake London.