Bruins, Trojans take a different approach in conversations that lead to a rivalry clash

Across the city, the run-up to the USC vs. UCLA rivalry has had all the roar and bravado you’d normally expect from a game like this.

Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the elder statesmen of the showdown for the Victory Bell, is now in his fifth installment of the series (although he barely saw the field as a freshman at the 2018 meeting).

And it certainly seems personal to him.

“I clearly know what’s at stake: trying to teach my younger teammates the tradition and everything that comes with this game. Obviously we hate those guys in town. It’s a bitter feeling with those guys,” said Thompson-Robinson Monday.

he wasn’t ready…

“I remember [the 2020 game in the Rose Bowl] clear as a lump, scolding us, throwing us off. Disrespectful as you can get,” he said

A few days later, back at Howard-Jones Field, USC quarterback Caleb Williams couldn’t have chosen another course during a talk after the Trojans’ Wednesday practice.

When asked what he learned about the rivalry ahead of his first round, Williams said: “I didn’t learn much, to be honest. I treat it like a different game. It’s a different game. I’ve played in other big rivalry games so far in my career, so treat it like a different game.”

Of course it’s not just a game.

With USC (9-1, 7-1 Pac-12) ranked No. 7 in both the AP poll and CFP rankings and UCLA (8-2, 5-2) ranked No. 16 in both, it is a major national showdown at a time of year when the Trojans need the eyes of that playoff selection committee.

It’s also getting the full attention it deserves locally, as the Bruins announced a sellout at the Rose Bowl on Saturday (5pm PT on FOX).

USC can clinch its place in the Pac-12 championship game with a win and keep hopes alive for a playoff berth, while UCLA is still in the game for a conference championship if it wins.

Even though it’s not the potential top-10 matchup it could have been if UCLA hadn’t lost to Arizona last week, this is still the rivals’ highest combined ranking for this game since 2005, when the Trojans were ranked No. 1 were and the No. 11 Bruins.

“The energy is different. I could see it [Monday] when we walked into the building, it was like it was time to go,” said USC receiver Jordan Addison, who also stars in his first episode of the rivalry. That week, so it’s time to go.”

Sophomore safety Calen Bullock said, “Everyone knows what week it is, so everyone takes that seriously—not really playing, more locked into this week… We know what kind of week it is for us.”

So trapped in the Trojans have shown no interest in answering the verbal shots coming from Westwood this week.

“I have a general disdain for ‘SC, just because you’re only here a few months, just because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing,’ said UCLA wide receiver Jake Bobo, a transfer from Duke who is originally from Massachusetts.

Have the Trojans listened? It sure doesn’t sound like it…

“No, we really don’t pay attention to that. We just focus on what we really need to do,” said Bullock.

The USC players made available for interviews this week were to be informed that Thompson-Robinson said, “We want to break 60 points,” referring to UCLA’s 62-33 victory last year at the Coliseum against a completely different Trojans team.

“Did he say that? Yeah, I really didn’t know. He has his own opinion, we know what we’re going to do. We’ll go there and execute. I know that’s not the case.” going to happen,” said Bullock.

Addison said, “I don’t see any of that, but who wouldn’t want to take 60 against us? I mean, we’re USC. But they’re going to have to stand behind that. He’s going to have to stand on those words.”

Veteran edge rusher Nick Figueroa, who several years ago chose the Trojans over the Bruins as a coveted JUCO transfer, was asked about Thompson-Robinson’s other comments and wouldn’t bite.

“Those are his comments. I know sometimes you get those questions that are kind of focused on an answer. I’m sure he was. I really don’t have anything to say,” Figueroa said.

And sixth-year center Brett Neilon?

“Obviously he’s a fierce competitor, he’s competing super hard. Those guys over there have had a great season. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be physical. He’s a great player,” said Neilon.

Solid comeback, indeed.

One can only assume that a directive came from coach Lincoln Riley not to exchange nonsense leading up to the game.

But also so many of this roster and coaching staff really have no point of reference for the USC vs. UCLA rivalry, as the Trojans brought in 29 newcomers since last season either via transfer or as freshmen.

Defensive back coach Donte Williams is the only coach remaining, while coach Roy Manning spent a season on the opposite side of the rivalry at UCLA in 2018.

“It’s a big game for this city, and a few people in the room have been talking about it, so I’m kind of starting to get the feeling,” Addison said.

Linebacker Shane Lee, who came over from Alabama this year, has plenty of rivalry experience in the Iron Bowl vs. Auburn. But he had to learn firsthand about the nuances of UCLA week on campus.

“I think the first thing I noticed was I walked out after the Monday morning meeting and saw the image had been taped over. I thought UCLA was doing it or something. They told me it was just for protection, so that really put the mood for the week.” Lee said. “It was just amazing. It’s always about us, and it’s always about what we do, but you definitely feel the energy.”

The Riley and USC returning players all said there has been no great overt emphasis on teaching the freshman Trojans about the history or specifics of the rivalry.

“We’re not doing anything, frankly, too specific with this rivalry. I mean, and not to downplay it in any way. We’ve recognized that this game is going to feel different in some ways. We’ve recognized that it’s a rivalry game, there’s a lot of history behind it, it’s going to be a great game to play in. But other than that I think we’re really focusing on what we think will help us play well and that’s where our focus is going to be,” Riley said at the start this week. “Apart from both teams wearing home jerseys, I don’t know there’s a whole lot different, to be honest. And they’re great — one of the best parts of our job is to coach in this — but our focus gets these guys ready to play.”

Veteran offensive guard Justin Dedich said: “Both teams have such good records this year, the rivalry was kind of built in for these transfer kids. They know it’s a big game for us. It’s going to mean a lot – it’s a title game. So there wasn’t much teaching. I think they can somewhat understand the rivalry, given all the material that’s been captured, the importance both schools place on it.”

USC has won five of its last seven meetings, but the Bruins took the big win at the Coliseum last year. UCLA has not won consecutive years in the rivalry since winning three in a row from 2012-2014.

Overall, USC is 49-33-7 with two wins won in the series dating back to 1929 and played every year since 1936.

And this is perhaps the most anticipated edition in a long time, even if the trash talk has been one-sided this year, many of the key players on the Trojans are new and the coaching staff isn’t making it the storyline of the week internally.

As Neilon said, it shouldn’t take any extra effort to get the message across anyway.

“If you’re not ready for this game, there’s something wrong with you,” he said.

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