The scoreboard operator at Martin Stadium should be busy on Friday night, as USC travels to Pullman to take on Washington State in a battle of 4-0 teams in a key Pac-12 showdown. This game also features an outstanding quarterback duel between USC’s Sam Darnold and Washington State’s Luke Falk. With the heart of Pac-12 play coming up, this matchup starts a critical stretch of games for both teams.
High expectations surrounded coach Clay Helton’s team this offseason, and USC is off to a solid 4-0 start. But outside of the Stanford victory (42-24), the Trojans haven’t quite put everything together or found the week-to-week consistency needed to reach the CFB Playoff. Even though Darnold’s seven interceptions rank second among Pac-12 passers, he’s still completing 67.1 percent of his throws and made several plays against Texas to help USC avoid the upset loss. While the Trojans are still sorting through some new faces in the lineup, talent certainly isn’t an issue for Helton. And getting the kinks out of the way now could set this team up for an undefeated regular season and Pac-12 title.
With a win over Nevada last Saturday, Washington State was able to secure its first 4-0 start since 2001. Coach Mike Leach’s team is once again led by a standout offense, but the defense has also made marked improvement under coordinator Alex Grinch. The Cougars easily defeated Montana State, Oregon State and Nevada to secure three of their wins, but the victory over Boise State required overtime (47-44). The path for Leach’s team is only going to get tougher from here. Washington State takes on Oregon next Saturday, followed by a trip to California on Oct. 13. After winning eight games and finishing second in the Pac-12 North in 2016, winning the division and earning a trip to the conference title game is within reach for the Cougars.
USC holds a 59-9-4 series edge over Washington State. The last meeting between the Trojans and Cougars took place in 2014, with USC winning 44-17. Washington State has defeated the Trojans just once over the last 10 matchups.
USC at Washington State
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 29 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: USC – 3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington State’s Offense
As expected with a Mike Leach-coached team, the offense (especially the passing game) is the strength for this 2017 squad. Washington State averages 43.8 points per contest and has scored at least 45 points in each of its last three games this season. Quarterback Luke Falk is the catalyst for Leach’s offense, as the senior has passed for 1,378 yards and 14 touchdowns and ranks second among Pac-12 quarterbacks by averaging 344.5 passing yards per game. Falk had an uneven performance in the Sept. 9 game against Boise State but has responded by tossing 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions over the last two contests.
While Falk is the centerpiece of the offense, he’s not the only playmaker for Leach. Washington State is three-deep at running back, with Jamal Morrow (193) leading the way in yardage. In addition to Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks providing some punch on the ground, all three are valuable in the passing game. Williams has 37 receptions through the first four contests, which leads all Washington State players. Falk lost standouts Gabe Marks and River Cracraft from last year’s attack but still has a talented group of receivers on the outside. Tavares Martin (26 catches), Isaiah Johnson-Mack and Renard Bell help Falk connect on big plays or attack the middle of the field.
It’s no secret Washington State is going to move the ball and score its share of points on Friday night. How will USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast counter Leach’s high-powered offense? One area the Trojans will look to exploit is the Washington State offensive line, which has surrendered 14 sacks so far this year. In a pass-first offense, the sack total can be inflated by quarterbacks holding onto the ball too long or the number of opportunities. However, the Cougars surrendered five against Boise State, and USC’s front seven is the best this team has seen so far in 2017. Linebacker Cameron Smith (35 stops) is an All-America candidate, and he’s joined by standouts Rasheem Green (20 tackles), Uchenna Nwosu (24 tackles, 2 TFL) and Christian Rector (4.5 TFL) in the front seven. The Trojans have registered 11 sacks through four games, so this unit is capable of making life difficult for Falk on Friday night. USC’s secondary ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, but this unit gave up 303 yards to California last Saturday and will be tested even more this week.
The battle up front might be the most important matchup to watch in this game. Can Washington State’s offensive line provide adequate protection for Falk to test USC’s secondary downfield? Or will the Trojans win the battle up front and prevent Falk from getting into a rhythm and helping to direct the offense on track?
2. USC QB Sam Darnold and Question Marks at Receiver
As with any new starters or key players in a supporting cast, USC has had its share of ups and downs through the first four games. The Trojans lost two key receivers from last year’s passing game, as JuJu Smith-Schuster left for the NFL, and Darreus Rogers expired his eligibility. However, the cupboard is hardly bare for coach Clay Helton. Receivers Deontay Burnett (33), Steven Mitchell (14), and tight end Tyler Petite (12) are Darnold’s main targets. However, injuries are a concern for this group on a short week. Burnett is dealing with an injured shoulder, and his status is uncertain for Friday night. Steven Mitchell did not play against California and is also uncertain for the trip to Pullman.
With the status of Burnett and Mitchell likely to be uncertain until kick off, Darnold is going to need a few other names to emerge at receiver. In addition to targeting Petite more, USC could involve dynamic freshman running back Stephen Carr (13) in the passing game, along with receivers Jalen Greene, Tyler Vaughns (also dealing with injury) and Velus Jones.
Why does the status of a couple of receivers matter? While Darnold is easily one of college football’s best quarterbacks, he’s already tossed seven picks (not all his fault) after throwing nine on 366 attempts last season. With new faces in the supporting cast, it’s no surprise Darnold is trying to make plays and could be forcing the ball into tight windows on Friday. If Burnett and Mitchell are able to go, that’s a huge boost for Darnold against a Washington State secondary ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense.
3. USC’s Offensive Line Against Washington State’s Defense
Just as we mentioned above with Washington State’s offense, the play of USC’s front five in the trenches is going to be critical to the outcome of this Pac-12 showdown. The Trojans had to break in three new starters up front this fall, and it’s safe to say this unit has had its share of issues so far. USC has allowed seven sacks and struggled to clear running lanes against Texas and California. Washington State’s defensive front is quietly disruptive and could create a lot of problems for Darnold and the offensive line. The Cougars are holding opponents to 3.6 yards per carry and are tied for first in the Pac-12 with 15 sacks. Lineman Hercules Mata’afa is among the Pac-12’s top defenders and is likely to see plenty of attention from the USC offensive line. Mata’afa is the main cog in creating havoc for Grinch, but Nnamdi Oguayo (three sacks) and edge rusher Frankie Luvu (2.5) are also capable of creating a pass rush.
Not only is pass protection critical, but USC has to get more out of its ground game to hold off the Washington State upset. Standout running back Ronald Jones missed last Saturday’s game against California due to injury but is expected to play this week. Jones leads the team with 322 yards and five rushing scores, and Carr ranks second with 298 yards and three touchdowns.
On the surface, USC’s rushing numbers aren’t cause for great concern. However, while the Trojans rank fourth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, a deeper look shows most of the production took place in the first two games (539 of 743 yards). Additionally, USC averaged just 1.9 yards per carry against Texas and 3.5 versus California. The Washington State defensive front is capable of creating havoc at the line of scrimmage and stuffing the run to put Darnold in third-and-long situations.
How will USC’s offensive line perform? If this group struggles, the Trojans are likely to head back to Los Angeles with their first loss.
The recipe for an upset is certainly there. Washington State has the offensive firepower to hang with USC quarterback Sam Darnold, and the Friday night atmosphere in Pullman provides a homefield advantage for Leach’s team. Additionally, the Cougars have the talent in the front seven to create problems for USC’s offensive line, generate pressure on Darnold and limit Jones’ big plays on the ground. Even though there are reasons to like Washington State, Darnold is the best player on the field, and the Trojans find just enough defense in the fourth quarter to remain unbeaten.