Conference play is in full swing as the calendar reaches Week 5 of the 2019 college football season, and Saturday’s showdown between USC and Washington is a big one for positioning in the Pac-12. The Huskies lost to California earlier this year and can’t afford to fall too far behind in a tough Pac-12 North Division. USC knocked off Utah last week and holds an early edge in the South. However, the road won’t get any easier in Week 2 with a trip to Seattle to take on the Huskies.
USC entered the season as arguably the biggest wild card team in the Pac-12 South. The Trojans won the Pac-12 in 2017 but missed on a bowl and finished 5-7 last fall. The losing mark – only the program’s second since 1992 – placed coach Clay Helton squarely on the hot seat in 2019. In an effort to get the program back on track, Helton shuffled his staff and hired Graham Harrell to call plays. So far, the results are encouraging for USC’s offense. The Trojans enter Week 5 averaging 33.3 points a game and enter Saturday’s matchup at 3-1 with victories over Fresno State, Stanford and Utah. The only defeat so far came in overtime at BYU.
Washington has claimed two out of the last three Pac-12 titles, and despite losing a chunk of talent from last year’s 10-win squad, contending for the conference crown once again was the preseason expectation in Seattle. The Huskies defeated Eastern Washington 47-14 in the opener but fell to California (20-19) in Week 2. Petersen’s squad has rebounded with back-to-back dominant wins, beating Hawaii 52-20 on Sept. 14 and BYU 45-19 last Saturday.
USC holds a 52-29-4 series edge over Washington. The Trojans have won three out of the last four meetings against the Huskies, including a 26-13 matchup in 2016.
USC at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Washington -10
When USC Has the Ball
As mentioned previously, Helton’s decision to hire Harrell as the team’s play-caller has paid dividends for USC’s offense. The Trojans finished 2018 averaging only 26.1 points a game and just 5.8 yards a snap. Through four contests in 2019, USC has increased those totals to 33.3 points a game and 6.5 yards a snap. Harrell’s background in the Air Raid has been instrumental in USC’s ability to push the ball downfield and utilize the talent at receiver this season.
Injuries have hit USC’s quarterback position hard in 2019. The Trojans lost starter JT Daniels in the opener due to a knee injury, and Kedon Slovis was knocked out of last week’s game versus Utah. With Slovis out of action last Friday, junior Matt Fink – who considered a transfer to Illinois this offseason – stepped up in a big way. Fink torched the Utes with big plays downfield to receiver Michael Pittman, ending the night with 21 completions for 351 yards and three scores. Fink averaged a healthy 16.7 yards a completion, while Pittman averaged 23.2 yards a reception and took one for a 77-yard score. Slovis was not cleared to play late in the week, and all signs point to Fink getting the start on Saturday afternoon.
After last week’s success, it’s safe to say Fink will once again target Pittman downfield. But the junior quarterback has other weapons to utilize, including Tyler Vaughns (27 catches) and Amon-Ra St. Brown (19). That trio is a big reason why USC ranks second in the Pac-12 in passing plays (11) of 30 yards or more this season.
Although USC’s passing offense has thrived, the run game is a work in progress. The Trojans are averaging only 3.6 yards a carry and have zero runs of 30 yards or more. Vavae Malepeai (311 yards) leads the way in the backfield, but Markese Stepp (97) and Stephen Carr (95) will be involved. The lack of production on the ground is partially due to gameplan (32.8 attempts a game), and an offensive line that has struggled at times to open up running lanes and in pass protection.
Washington’s defense led the Pac-12 in scoring defense from 2015-18 and held teams to just 4.7 yards a snap last season. Despite returning only two starters for 2019, the level of success hasn’t changed for the Huskies. The defense enters Week 5 holding teams to 4.9 yards a play and just 18.3 points a contest. Coordinator Jimmy Lake wanted his group to get more pressure on the quarterback this season, and so far, the defense has answered the call. Washington had 24 sacks in 14 contests last year but already has 10 through four games.
If USC pulls off the victory in Seattle, Helton’s team will once again need to connect downfield on big plays to Pittman, Vaughns and St. Brown. Despite some youth in the secondary, Washington has allowed only one pass of 40 yards or more. Finding running room on the Huskies’ front won’t be easy, but the Trojans need to stay out of third-and-long situations in a tough road environment. Big plays are needed to win. But USC’s offense also has to show a little more efficiency in order to pull off the upset in Seattle.
When Washington Has the Ball
Jake Browning’s solid four-year run as Washington’s starting quarterback concluded in the Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State last season. While Browning’s steady play and leadership would be missed, the Huskies didn’t have many concerns about the quarterback position with Jacob Eason eligible after sitting out 2018 after transferring in from Georgia. Eason’s big-time arm and ability to stretch the field was expected to be a huge asset for an offense that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 with nine completions of 40 yards or more last season.
So far, Eason is certainly living up to the hype. The junior is coming off a stellar performance against BYU (24 of 28 for 290 yards and three scores) and enters Week 5 completing 73.1 percent of his passes. As a team, Washington had only 19 touchdown passes last fall. Eason already has 10 touchdown tosses through four games.
Injuries and suspensions have forced some shuffling in Washington’s receiving corps this season. Tight end Hunter Bryant (19 catches) and receiver Aaron Fuller (21) are Eason’s favorite targets through four games, with Andre Baccellia (16) not far behind. Ty Jones caught 31 passes last year but has yet to play in 2019 due to a wrist injury. Bryant, Fuller and Baccellia will be a handful for a USC secondary that could be without two starters on Saturday. Safety Talanoa Hufanga – one of the Pac-12’s rising stars – and cornerback Olaijah Griffin did not practice on Wednesday, leaving their availability uncertain for Saturday’s game.
Salvon Ahmed stepped up into the No. 1 running back role after Myles Gaskin expired his eligibility. Ahmed thrived as Gaskin’s backup the last two seasons and was off to a good start (246) before missing last week’s game due to injury. Ahmed’s status for Week 5 is uncertain. However, if the junior is out of the lineup, Washington’s rushing attack is in good hands with Richard Newton (242) and Sean McGrew (204).
With Eason getting more and more comfortable with every snap, along with a steady and productive ground game, USC’s defense figures to have its hands full on Saturday afternoon. However, the news isn’t all bad for the Trojans. Washington’s experienced and standout offensive line could have its hands full against an active USC front. The Trojans have recorded 27 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks so far this year. Marlon Tuipulotu, Drake Jackson, Jay Tufele and Christian Rector are capable of creating havoc up front on run downs or in generating pressure on Eason.
With injuries taking a toll in the secondary, USC needs its front to play at a high level on Saturday night. The formula for this group seems simple: Stop the run on early downs and get pressure on Eason in passing situations.
An interesting sidenote to this matchup: Both USC and Washington have played BYU this season. The Trojans lost in overtime, while the Huskies won easily (45-19). That fact probably doesn’t mean a ton for this matchup, but USC will have its hands full on the road in Seattle. If Washington doesn’t give up big plays on defense and protects Eason in the pocket, Petersen’s team should win this one and cover the 10-point spread. If the Trojans win battles up front and Fink connects on the deep ball again, another upset will be within reach. It’s an attainable and reasonable formula for USC, but it’s tough to see Washington losing this game at home.