UCLA’s Thompson-Robinson ready to battle USC, Williams

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Many fans and other observers thought Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s performance against Southern California last year was an emphatic final chapter to his UCLA career.

It was far from it.

Thompson-Robinson decided to return for a fifth season in Westwood because he still had plenty to prove. His encore year and Caleb Williams’ arrival after Lincoln Riley was hired at USC set the stage for one of the best college football seasons in Los Angeles since 2005.

It has led to Saturday’s much-anticipated Crosstown Showdown as the No. 16 Bruins (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) host the seventh-ranked Trojans (9-1, 7-1). The game sold out even after UCLA raised the capacity at the Rose Bowl to nearly 71,000.

The game’s 92nd edition will also feature a milestone. It is the first in which both LA schools are led by a Black quarterback.

“It’s very rare in 2022 when you can sit and be witness to history like that. And certainly, I think we’re all going to be lucky for that,” said Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt. “I think the two are going to put on an absolute show. I would be shocked if this game wasn’t one of the higher-scoring games we’ve seen this year.”

The game was on track to be the first time since 1988 that both teams were ranked in the top 10 before UCLA’s disappointing 34-28 loss to Arizona last Saturday. After both teams were unranked in the matchup three of the previous four seasons, it is the first time in 17 years both teams are in the top 16.

It is also shaping up to be the best QB matchup since the 1988 game when UCLA’s Troy Aikman opposed USC’s Rodney Peete.

UCLA and Thompson-Robinson have bragging rights after last year’s 62-33 victory, where he accounted for six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing). He hurdled a USC cornerback en route to one touchdown and then signed a hat for a 12-year-old USC fan after scoring another.

On Monday, he didn’t waste any time fanning the flames of the rivalry.

“Obviously, we hate those guys across town. It’s a bitter feeling with those guys,” Thompson-Robinson said. “We want to be even better (than last year). We want to break 60 and all that stuff. We’re trying to improve on everything we’ve done this year and maximize our game that way.”

Thompson-Robinson will make his fifth appearance and fourth start against the Trojans. Kedon Slovis outdueled him in 2019 and ’20 before last year’s revenge. Three of Thompson-Robinson’s six 300-yard passing games have come against the Trojans.

While last year’s game is undoubtedly a highlight, Thompson-Robinson still dwells on the 2020 game in which the Trojans rallied for a 43-38 victory. That game was played in an empty Rose Bowl due to the COVID-19 pandemic and magnified both teams’ trash talk.

“I remember it clear as day, cussing at us, flipping us off, as disrespectful as you can get,” he said. “We know what’s at stake and what it means to our fans and this community. We’ve got to go out there and win this game.”

Williams is facing the Bruins for the first time, but he is well acquainted with rivalry games. Last season at Oklahoma, he entrenched himself as the Sooners’ quarterback by coming in during the second quarter of the Red River Rivalry against Texas. He also played in the Bedlam Game against Oklahoma State.

“Caleb has played not only in rivalry games but big games with title implications. I like where our guy has been and the battles he has been in,” Riley said.

Thompson-Robinson and Williams have both been effective leaders while putting up great seasons. Thompson-Robinson — who has not missed a game for the first time in his career — is third nationally in completion percentage (.710) and 14th in passing efficiency (160.1). He is at the helm of a UCLA offense that is the only one nationally to exceed 2,400 rushing yards and 2,600 passing yards.

Williams has vaulted into Heisman Trophy consideration with four straight games where he has accounted for five touchdowns. He is third nationally with 28 passing TDs.

The most impressive stat for Williams is that he has thrown only two interceptions in 342 attempts.

“I’m trying to be consistent, that’s the one thing you want to try to do as a quarterback,” he said. “If I can be consistent overall as a leader and as a passer it helps out the team in other ways. Turning over the ball is one of the ways a team can lose games. I try to put my receivers in the best position.”

The unfortunate thing for fans is that, barring both teams getting to the Pac-12 title game in two weeks in Las Vegas, this will be the only collegiate matchup between Thompson-Robinson and Williams.

Thompson-Robinson will take part in Senior Day festivities before the game. He already has the most career starts by a UCLA quarterback (his 46th will be Saturday) and is the leader in touchdown passes (81) with more school records in range.

Williams is trying to keep USC in the College Football Playoff conversation but has been philosophical about what he needs to do to improve.

“There’s a lot more that I don’t know and that I’m itching to know. How I can be better as a leader and play better,” he said.

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