By William Robinson
LOS ANGELES, Sept 23 (Reuters) - It is one of college football's most intense rivalries, spanning more than eight decades.
For years, when University of Southern California (USC) played its cross-town rival UCLA at the University of California, Los Angeles' home field at the Rose Bowl, the drum major for USC's marching band would stab a sword into the UCLA logo at midfield - a ritual at every USC away game until last year, when the Trojans dropped the practice after UCLA threatened to ban them from the game.
For much of the last 15 years, however, the game itself was a one-sided affair. With a backfield that produced three Heisman Trophy winners over that span, USC's Trojans won 13 of the 15 games, on their way to four Rose Bowl wins.
That was then. Today, UCLA's team has zoomed to 13th in the United States with a high-powered offense that has won its first three games, including a 41-21 come-from-behind trampling of the Nebraska's Cornhuskers, then the nation's 23th ranked team.
USC, meanwhile, has fallen out of the top 25 with a 3-1 record that includes a 10-7 home loss to unranked Washington State and 17-14 squeaker against a 2-2 Utah State team.
For Los Angeles sports fans, it's a case of deja vu. Last year, it was the LA Clippers NBA team who excited the city after years of hum drum performances, with young players who elbowed past an aging LA Lakers to grab attention.
"It's possible (that UCLA overtakes USC)," Los Angeles Times sports editor Mike James said. "That's something that would take some time. UCLA would need some sustained excellence. It's similar to Lakers and Clippers. The Clippers are the better team, but it's still a Lakers town."
Without a professional football team since the Rams and Raiders left in 1995, LA has adopted USC as the next best thing. And the Trojans excelled, winning two national championships in the last decade and producing Heisman Trophies for quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
In its 124-year history, USC has won 11 national championships, produced seven Heisman winners and sent 480 players to the National Football League, the most of any university.
"Social and corporate memory in L.A. is that USC is the city's football team," said Daniel Durbin, director of USC's Annenberg Institute of Sports Media Studies.
USC also suffered through one of the NCAA's most serious penalties, after infractions that included star running back Reggie Bush receiving gifts from a sports agent. That forced USC to return Bush's Heisman Trophy and remove Bush's jersey from Heritage Hall, where it hung with former Trojan stars O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen and others.
Pete Carroll, who coached the team through much of the last decade, left for the Seattle Seahawks. In his place, 38-year old Lane Kippen, a one-time coach for the Oakland Raiders, endured a turbulent season, including an injury to last year's quarterback Matt Barkley in a 7-6 season after being anointed the country's top-ranked team is pre-season polls.
This year, Kiffin's indecision in selecting a starting quarterback drew Trojan supporters' ire and increased the temperature on an already hot seat.
Fans chanted "Fire Kiffin" throughout the Washington State game. Discord on the team, unthinkable during the Carroll years, floated through the locker room, stoked by a rumoured players-only meaning scheduled by Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee.
"This year, you've got an interesting story in USC because we don't know if the team is going to implode," said Times sports editor James.
THE RETURN OF THE BRUINS
UCLA, meanwhile, has become a fast-paced, thrill a minute team, coached by Jim Mora, a pro coach in Atlanta and Seattle, who has turned loose fleet footed quarterback Brett Hundley to run a high-octane running attack featuring junior Jordan James, who ranks fourth in the country with 141.3 yards a game.
There are faint indications that a wave of UCLA support may be swelling. Merchandise sails are up and internet traffic for UCLA football stories are also seeing an "uptick," said the paper's sports editor James, although USC still exceeds its rivals in clicks.
"It's always hard to see USC struggle; the fact that UCLA is having a little bit of a revival doesn't make it any harder for me," says Roy Nwaisser via email, a four-time USC alumnus and affectionately known as "USC Psycho." Nwaisser has attended every game since 1992 - 260 in total.
"USC's reputation is built on football and UCLA's reputation is built on basketball, and that's how it will always be," says Nwaisser. "L.A. has always been and will always be a USC football town." (Reporting By William Robinson; Edited by Ronald Grover)