Pac Tracks: Trouble may be Bruin in Westwood as USC looks to seize control of the cross-town rivalry

Welcome to my favorite local-colleges nostalgia show: "I Remember When."

Remember when USC started the season with the wrong coach—#FireHelton—and the wrong starting quarterback?

And remember when UCLA started with the right coach—Jim Mora’s Bruins picked by media to win Pac 12 South—and the “Chosen One” at quarterback?

Well, folks, have things changed!

Both schools lost their openers away from home, against Southeastern Conference schools, before heading off into opposite directions.

USC plays UCLA on Saturday night carrying the momentum of a movement. The Trojans, not the Bruins, are ranked in the top 25 and still in the hunt for the Pac 12 championship. The Trojans, not the Bruins, have the quarterback with better current odds of winning the 2017 Heisman Trophy.

The Trojans, not the Bruins, appear settled for years at head coach.

The Trojans are 7-3 and the Bruins are 4-6, unable to run (or hide). There is suddenly euphoria at Heritage Hall and an undercurrent of insurrection in Westwood that threatens to implode the program. UCLA's uncertainties involve a certain star player at a certain marquee position (more about that in a minute).

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USC's problems only required a minor beaker tweak in their chemistry department. The Trojans had the talent and pieces all along and lacked only a decisive, early decision by a scared head coach who acted out of political expediency in naming veteran Max Browne at quarterback.

It seemed the fair thing for Clay Helton to do, rewarding a former USA Today prep All-American who waited patiently behind Cody Kessler for his chance. What if Helton started freshman Sam Darnold and Browne transferred?

The answer now seems so simple: yeah, so?

It took a 1-2 start to shake Helton, his own future perilously hanging, to start Darnold at Utah on Sept. 23.

And what if Helton would have trusted Darnold in his first start? USC might now be on a SEVEN-game winning streak with an outside shot to make the college football playoff.

USC fans know of what I speak.

Holding a late 27-24 lead, faced fourth-and-three at the Utah 37, Coach Conservative (Helton) called for the punt team. This was something a guy coaching for his job does. Safe, conservative—Lloyd Carr would have done it 100 out of 100 times.

Utah got the ball on its own seven and drove 93 yards in 15 plays for the game-winning touchdown.

Utes Coach Kyle Whittingham, a man with a strong jaw and job security, went straight for USC’s jugular in the final 5:21. Even with one of the best field goal kickers in the country, Whittingham never thought about a tie and overtime. He went for it not once, but twice, on fourth-and-short en route to a river boat gambler’s touchdown that keeps Utah hovering near the national top 10.

Since the Utah loss, though, Darnold has been lights-ON in leading USC to six straight wins heading into Saturday's cross-town show down at the Rose Bowl.

USC’s opponent will be UCLA, a team from Westwood heading Southwood. The Bruins “improved” to 4-6 this weekend with a home win over Oregon State, a team so depleted by injury the Bruins were finally able to run for 163 yards. That jacked UCLA’s seasonal average up to 87.2, still leaving it ranked No. 127 nationally. The only school worse is Texas State.

Ok, we know, quarterback Josh Rosen’s shoulder injury at Arizona State Oct. 8 has altered the course of everything. And yes, not having Rosen has been a big blow, even though Rosen was playing below expectations before his injury.

There were problems brewing, though, before Rosen got hurt. There have been rumblings for months something is not right in the locker room and that Rosen is the issue.

Rankman is semi-retired now, almost off the books at the L.A. Times, but I still hear things.

Some people are wondering if Rosen’s attitude is leaning more toward Ryan Leaf than Matt Ryan.

Rosen clearly has top-level NFL talent, but what about the other intangibles?

Is he coachable? Is he a good teammate? Is he selfish? Is he blowing off team leadership meetings?

The UCLA beat guys might want to dig deeper into the situation, you know, while Rankman sips on an umbrella drink down at Coconut Grove.

As the late, great Jim Healy might have bellowed years ago on his must-hear radio show: “IS IT TRUE that a former UCLA star was left shaking his head after walking away from a meeting with a certain current, injured UCLA star?”

Why did Noel Mazzone, UCLA’s gifted offensive coordinator last year, leave for Texas A&M?

Why does a guy walk away from a first-round pick, in Westwood, to coach Trevor Knight, in College Station?

IS IT TRUE...there are people hanging around the UCLA program that should not be hanging around it?

And wasn't THAT how USC got in trouble?

Healy used to drop these kind of juicy nuggets on me when I covered the Rams in the 1980s. They weren't always true but sometimes they were. But they always had to be checked out.

Rosen can make it sunshine and roses by bouncing back from surgery to have a stellar junior year on his way to the 2018 draft.

Jim Mora’s future might count on it, although some wonder how much sleep Rosen is losing over it.

USC beat Mora-coached UCLA last year for the first time. The Trojans are poised to do it again Saturday.

The longer-view question, in Westwood, is how to stop the bleating. [/membership]

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