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USC Trojans vs. Washington Huskies Preview and Prediction

Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold

Oct. 8, 2015, marked a significant turning point in the Pac-12 football landscape. That Thursday night in Los Angeles, Washington went into the Coliseum and stunned USC in a game that proved to be Steve Sarkisian's last as Trojans head coach. 

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In the 13 months since, Washington went from a team reveling in its role as underdog, to the undisputed top dog of the Pac-12. 

As for USC, interim head coach Clay Helton regrouped to lead USC to a Pac-12 South title; dropped the interim tag; became the topic of hot-seat talk amid a 1-3 start to his first, full season in charge; and now has the Trojans playing some of the best football in the conference. 

Sporting a No. 20 ranking, and with designs on returning to the Pac-12 Championship Game, USC heads to Husky Stadium in a reversal of roles from a season ago. With league and national championship implications on the line, it's no wonder wide receiver Deontay Burnett called this the kind of game, "we came to USC for." 

USC at Washington 

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV FOX

Spread: Washington -8.5

Three Things to Watch 

1. A Battle for QB Supremacy

Washington sophomore Jake Browning has played his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation, piling up historic numbers. Sixteen percent of every pass he throws goes for a score, a mark not seen since the 1991 season. He's also on pace to break the season-long quarterback rating record Russell Wilson set at Wisconsin in 2011. 

Since replacing Max Browne in Week 4, USC's Sam Darnold has commanded national attention of his own. He's a finalist for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's top quarterback, and Darnold is fast establishing himself as a candidate to be the future face of the Pac-12. 

Browning and Darnold are opposite two of the most talented defenses in the conference Saturday. The one who makes more plays isn't just likely to score the win, but garner more national attention going forward. 

2. Putting on the Pressure

A great quarterback — which both Washington and USC have — always plays behind a great offensive line. Indeed, USC and Washington have two of the best in the Pac-12, evident both in rushing numbers and sack yields. 

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Washington has allowed just 16 sacks all season, good for 41st in the nation, while USC's nine allowed ranks seventh in the FBS. 

Both defenses have thrived on generating pressure. USC's improved in that regard amid a five-game winning streak since Oct. 1, and looked especially dominant with the blitz in its convincing win over Oregon last week. Sophomore Porter Gustin is coming into his own as a pass-rushing force, and could be key to the Trojans disrupting Browning. 

Washington's pass rush has been one of the best in the country throughout the season, with the Huskies piling up 27 sacks through nine games — often without bringing the blitz. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski may need to gamble more this week, however, with breakout star Joe Mathis lost for the season. 

Mathis' ability to get into the backfield on simple three- and four-man rushes made Washington especially dangerous. Kwiatkowski must recreate that pressure to rattle Darnold, but do so without compromising the matchups in the secondary. Darnold's ability to spread the ball among a diverse corps of pass catchers has elevated the USC offense, and Washington will need all hands on deck against that rotation. 

A challenge for both defenses when balancing blitz is the multifaceted ways in which each offense can hurt via the run. USC gets back veteran Justin Davis, who will join streaking Ronald Jones II and change-of-pace back Dominic Davis, while Washington rolls with Pac-12 rushing leader Myles Gaskin and big-play threat Lavon Coleman. 

3. The Home-Field Edge

Since Washington won at USC last October, the Trojans have gone unbeaten at the Coliseum. They've played with a different energy at home, which hasn't always shown up on the road. 

It may never be more important than this week, at one of the most intimidating venues in the Pac-12.

Despite its reputation as perhaps the most picturesque stadium in college football, Husky Stadium can become a house of horrors for opponents. The boisterous Dawg fans are loud, which lend to communication problems at the line of scrimmage. Washington's stingy defense feeds off those miscues and tees off when opponents get behind the chains.

USC must take the crowd out of it early. If Washington starts cooking in the first half, it could be a long day for the Trojans.

Final Analysis

Washington and USC are currently playing the best football in the conference right now, with Washington State the possible exception. The Trojans' performance over their last five games has been outstanding on both sides of the ball, and they pose a real threat to Washington's unblemished record. 

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Because USC is playing so well, this marks a much-needed resume-win opportunity for the Huskies' College Football Playoff aspirations. The knock against Washington, despite its perfect record, is that a down Pac-12 obfuscates just how good this team can be. A USC team loaded with talented playmakers on both sides of the ball will provide an illuminating gauge. 

Upset alert is high, and USC should benefit from the absence of standout linebacker Joe Mathis. But Washington's secondary matches up well with the deep rotation of USC pass catchers, and the Huskies' many weapons on offense should break through enough to put the W in UW. 

Prediction: Washington 31, USC 28 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.