As USC gets ready to play Washington State Friday night in Pullman, more than a few folks have predicted a loss for the undefeated (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) and No. 5-ranked Trojans. The reasons why are numerous, but it all starts with a USC offense whose production has declined over the past few weeks going head-to-head with a pretty good Washington State defense. The Cougars are undefeated (4-0, 1-0) and currently ranked 16th in the AP poll. They also are tied for 29th in the nation in scoring defense (18.5 ppg), which has them in the same company as the likes of TCU and Notre Dame and not too far behind Utah and Colorado. The fact that the game is in Pullman is just added trouble.
For fans of the USC aesthetic, Wazzu plays an ugly game, but it’s a style of game the Cougars have mastered and know how to win. In reality, a stingy defense is complemented by an effective offense. Washington State is 12th in FBS in scoring offense. With apologies to Stanford, this is the best team the Trojans have faced thus far, although some would be quick to point out the Cougars’ strength of schedule. Regardless of your opinion on that, it doesn’t change the fact that Washington State has beaten USC twice in head coach Mike Leach’s six seasons. It would be a mistake to think that victory No. 3 can’t happen in Pullman on Friday night.
How USC manages this game will be telling in the Trojans’ quest for a Pac-12 title and potential spot in the College Football Playoff. USC is favored by a little more than a field goal, not quite the spreads the Trojans have been getting this season. But there are plenty of reasons for this, starting with the fact that this game is in Pullman, the Pac-12’s farthest outpost in Pacific Northwest and a difficult place to play.
There’s also the matter of USC’s offense, which started out explosive and has devolved into a rather pedestrian attack. After managing 7.8 yards per play against Western Michigan, the Trojans peaked with 8.4 yards per play in the big win over Stanford. That number dipped to 5.3 in the overtime victory over Texas and fell again to just 4.7 last week against Cal. The Cardinal’s pedigree notwithstanding, a case can be made for Washington State’s defense being the toughest one USC has faced to this point.
If the Trojans are to come out on top, they will need their running backs to fire on all cylinders. Ronald Jones II’s return after missing last week’s game would be a big boost, but the absence of linebacker Porter Gustin looms large for the defense. Gustin has been one of USC’s best defenders, and he changes the complexion of the pass rush. Others will need to step up in his stead. After all, linebacker Uchenne Nwosu cannot do it all, although he seems capable.
Jones is averaging 107.3 rushing yards per game and already has scored five touchdowns. He has been a critical part of this offense in the early going and his absence last week is a big reason why the Trojans struggled to move the ball (356 total yards) against Cal. Even if he’s able to return, there’s no telling how effective Jones will be after missing last week’s game, but it would definitely give Washington State’s defense something else to prepare for.
On defense, USC’s task list starts with slowing down record-setting quarterback Luke Falk. The senior is off to another scintillating start, completing 77 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and just one interception. The Trojans have their own difference-maker at QB in Sam Darnold, but also don’t want to get in a shootout with Falk and company on their home turf.
USC’s defense has done a pretty solid job for the most part, although nothing really jumps off of the stat sheet. On the other side, Washington State’s defense has been really good against the pass (142.3 ypg, 12th in FBS) and has been better, at least on paper, in stopping the run (120.0 ypg, 41st) than the Trojans (153.5, 74th) as well. However, looking at the overall picture and these two teams seem to be fairly evenly matched.
In the end, USC needs this win and Washington State wants this win. Whichever teams wins is likely to receive a boost in the rankings not to mention the momentum and confidence departments as well. Washington State is 1-1 under Leach since he took over as head coach in 2012 with USC winning the last meeting, 44-17 in Pullman in ’14.
There is plenty riding on this one for both teams, but the Trojans need it more if they want to stay on their title tracks, if you will. USC has cleared the first four hurdles of its schedule of 12 straight games without a bye. The fifth is awaiting the Trojans in Pullman on Friday night.