LOS ANGELES — Even if Matt Barkley is down to his last few days as Southern California's starting quarterback, he had no plans for reflection or celebration while the No. 10 Trojans prepared for another crosstown meeting with UCLA.
And this is certainly no time for crying.
Barkley laughed when USC coach Lane Kiffin recalled the weepy Coliseum finale of Matt Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner who attended the same Orange County high school as Barkley.
Kiffin said the Trojans' coaching staff will "make sure (Barkley) doesn't pull a Leinart on us. Matt was still crying late in the first series, started 0 for 5, threw the ball over Mike (Williams') head about 10 yards. ... If there's someone that won't get rattled, it would be (Barkley)."
Although Barkley claims he hasn't decided whether to return for his senior year after leading the Trojans through NCAA sanctions and a two-year bowl ban during their remarkable resurgence, he still hopes to wrap up his junior year in style when USC (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) finishes against the Bruins (6-5, 5-3), who could earn a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 title game with an upset victory in the city championship game Saturday night.
"You probably won't see me crying," Barkley said. "We've had a good season, but it doesn't mean anything until we finish strong. This is the game you always look back at, though. The rivalry game is the most important one."
USC has won 11 of its last 12 meetings with UCLA, losing only in 2006. While the Bruins have been inconsistent all season, winning consecutive games just once, the Trojans have improved significantly since the start of the season, rolling into the Victory Bell game with six wins in their last seven games after last week's landmark upset win at Oregon.
The Trojans did their best to beat back feelings of redemption from that win at Autzen Stadium. A letdown would be natural after such a victory, but USC says it won't be caught looking ahead — since there's nothing to see up there except a promising 2012.
"It feels good to be on the team that all came together, regardless of no bowl games or whatever sanctions," said tailback Marc Tyler, who also will finish his career Saturday. "We came out and played hard for all the players who were here in the past. It's about the Trojan Family this week."
But UCLA rarely has this much at stake in the city championship, which pleases Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel. After an up-and-down year featuring blowout losses and gritty victories, UCLA is bowl eligible. With a win, the Bruins would reach next week's conference title game — and perhaps save Neuheisel's job.
Neuheisel returned to his alma mater four years ago with bold pronouncements about ending the football monopoly in Los Angeles, but only a win over USC would allow anybody to take him seriously. The coach sees progress toward that goal, even if it hasn't been reflected in the city championship game.
"The gap has closed," Neuheisel said Monday in a quote that was posted on the walls at USC's Heritage Hall, albeit in a slightly altered form. "We're much closer to (USC) than we were when I first got here."
That's up for debate, but at least the Bruins' recent improvements are quantifiable. UCLA is coming off a 45-6 win over Colorado in which the Bruins posted their biggest point total and largest margin of victory in Neuheisel's four seasons.
"We've gained a lot of confidence in the last few weeks, the past month," said UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince, whose grasp of the pistol offense has been the key to the Bruins' three wins in their last four games. "We're really starting to develop an identity on both sides of the ball."
Although players from both schools revere this game's history, UCLA will do something new at the Coliseum. Athletic director Dan Guerrero has acknowledged the Bruins will debut a new uniform look, reportedly an all-white ensemble.Comment on this story
Trouble is, both teams traditionally wear their home jerseys in the city championship game. The tradition was revived just three years ago to widespread acclaim at the behest of Neuheisel and USC coach Pete Carroll, but UCLA appears determined to ditch it again. Guerrero hasn't explained his curious timing for the uniform switch.
The city championship game divides families, none more literally than the McDonalds of Fresno. T.J. McDonald is the Trojan's starting free safety, while little brother Tevin McDonald starts at the same position for UCLA.
Tevin said the Trojans didn't recruit him, but he didn't want to follow in the footsteps of his older brother and their famous father, NFL veteran Tim McDonald, who also coached both of his boys in high school.
"They'll be L.A. fans," Tevin said of his parents. "As long as we both stay healthy and play well, they'll be happy."