Immediately following Stanford's total drubbing of the USC Trojans, athletic director Mike Bohn pulled the trigger and fired head coach Clay Helton. The long-awaited decision has people all over the nation guessing as to who will be his replacement. For now, cornerbacks coach Donte Williams takes over as the interim head coach.
First up for the Williams-led Trojans is Washington State in Pullman. Even though Helton has been fired, expectations for the rest of USC's season are still fairly high. So if the Trojans have any thought of staying in the conversation in the Pac-12, they need to find a way to beat the Cougars on the road.
USC at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -8.5
When Washington State Has the Ball
The Cougars need to give Jayden de Laura time to operate within the offense. He's a quality quarterback and is capable of really hurting opposing teams, so long as he has space and time to operate. One would also think de Laura is champing at the bit to redeem himself following last year's contest against the Trojans.
The last time around, de Laura was coming off of a bout with COVID and was intercepted twice en route to a complete 38-13 beatdown by the Trojans. This time, de Laura feels good and is coming off a win in which he played well, even if it was an FCS opponent. He's managed to hold off Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano for the starting gig, but Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich does have that in his back pocket if de Laura starts having issues against the Trojans.
Stanford only threw for 234 yards last week against USC, but that was on 16 completions (10.4 yards per attempt) and included two touchdowns. After picking off San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel twice in the opener, the Trojans were picked apart by Tanner McKee, so it remains to be seen what type of pass defense will show up in Pullman against the Cougars. Generating any sort of a pass rush would certainly help, as USC is still in search of its first sack this season.
When USC Has the Ball
Well, USC's performance against Washington State can't possibly be as bad as the Stanford game or the San Jose State game, can it? The Trojans have to wonder if they made the right decision sticking with Kedon Slovis to the point that it justified letting JT Daniels walk away (transferred to Georgia), leaving USC in its current state. He has simply not been as good as he was in his freshman year. He's really struggled since then.
Last week, Slovis went 27-for-42 for 223 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The explosive plays just aren't there. The longest reception against the Cardinal went for 39 yards. For the season, Slovis is averaging 6.1 yards per pass attempt, while the Trojans' opponents are at 7.9.
USC still can't run the ball either. This is a program that used to line guys up and rush for 100 yards in the first half. Now those same guys routinely finish the game well below that mark and only put on a rushing clinic when the opposing team is so bad it's almost a formality. Last week was a move in the right direction as the Trojans accumulate 185 yards on 33 carries (5.6 ypc) with four different players, including Slovis, taking at least three carries.
USC needs to diversify its offense, which falls squarely on embattled offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Washington State has given up 430 yards per game thus far, and that was to teams from the Mountain West (Utah State) and the FCS (Portland State). This could be a good sign for the Trojans, but there's also no guarantee they'll find their offensive rhythm on Saturday night.
This game is one USC has to win if it wants to have any hope whatsoever of putting together a run at a Pac-12 crown. Not only would a second conference loss put the Trojans in a tough spot, there's also the optics of losing to Washington State, even if it's on the road. Regardless of what happens, Williams knows the focus won't be on him, but who will be in his position next year? So the question becomes this: Can Williams help the team ignore all the outside noise and speculation and focus on what needs to be done to get back into the win column? Pullman isn't an easy place to play for any team, let alone one that's already undergoing a coaching change.
Prediction: USC 31, Washington State 22
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— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.