A miserable final three quarters last week at Texas doomed USC to its second consecutive loss and a bevy of questions about the program's offense. The 37–14 rout in Austin came one week after a 17–3 loss at Stanford, and both games pit the already injury-plagued Trojans against physical opponents.
Were that not enough, USC returns home on a short week with an undefeated Washington State coming to town.
The Cougars' unblemished run through a middling non-conference schedule didn't reveal much about this team's championship chops. However, replacements for the many starters lost to graduation and the NFL from a season ago — gone are quarterback Luke Falk, offensive linemen Cody O'Connell and Cole Madison, and defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa, who vexed USC in a 30–27 Washington State win last September — have had three games to settle in.
USC faces the prospect of falling to 1–3, and worse, 0–2 in the Pac-12 with a loss. It's perhaps too early to call Friday a must-win for the Trojans, but the stakes are about as high as possible for a September contest.
Washington State at USC
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 21 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The physical price of a tough schedule
USC typically plays a challenging non-conference slate, compounded with an early-season date against Stanford tucked in the first few weeks. This year, the Cardinal preceded the road trip to Texas. Both opponents came at USC with big, physical linemen, especially from the defensive side.
USC's offensive front is veteran in the starting rotation, but injuries dating back to last season have made instances in which each of Toa Lobendahn, Chuma Edoga and Chris Brown have all been in the lineup somewhat rare. Indeed, this week, Andrew Voorhees — who made his first career start a year ago at Washington State — is up in the air due to an MCL injury.
The physical toll the last two weeks have taken on this unit could factor into its performance against a Washington State defensive front known less for physicality but that presents difficulty with its movement. Head coach Clay Helton compared the Cougars' motion to that which USC saw a week ago at Texas.
2. WSU's slew of receivers vs. USC's thin secondary
Mike Leach-coached teams always feature a bevy of pass catchers; his system requires it in order to spread the ball and keep defenses off-balance. Conversely, USC has been rendered especially thin in the secondary.
Some of the Trojans most veteran defensive leaders are the secondary, with Marvell Tell III at safety and Iman Marshall at cornerback, but defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has had to work new and young faces into the rotation around them. Isaiah Pola-Mao looked poised to break out at safety, but a shoulder injury sustained at Stanford has him on the sidelines. Bubba Bolden is suspended, and cornerback Isaiah Langley is questionable with a groin injury.
The thin unit will have its hands full against a wide receiving corps featuring six players with at least 10 catches (and seven Cougars total in double digits, including running back Max Borghi). Chief among the group is Davontavean Martin, already boasting 290 yards and three touchdowns on the season.
3. Quarterback experience
Quarterback JT Daniels returns to the Coliseum for just his second home college game, and the fourth contest in his young USC career. Though Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew is something of a revelation in his first year on the Palouse, the transfer from East Carolina attempted 506 passes in his two seasons before arriving in Pullman.
While the experience edge would seemingly go to Minshew, USC's inconsistencies on offense — in particular in the run game — have forced the true freshman Daniels to grow up fast against good competition. Daniels completed passes to nine different targets at Texas despite the Trojans being rendered one-dimensional.
If USC can establish a more effective run game, Daniels should be comfortable. As for Minshew, the margin for error narrows after three games against lesser competition. Though USC has struggled offensively, Helton praised the defense for allowing the Trojans to "lean on" it. Minshew will face pressure from such players as Christian Rector and Porter Gustin when he enters the lineup in the third quarter (Gustin is suspended for the first half due to a targeting penalty against Texas).
USC reaches gut-check time earlier in the schedule than it perhaps may have wanted. Another loss puts it in an 0–2 conference hole, and even with as bad as the Pac-12 South has looked early on, that's a difficult hole to escape.
Defensive leaders including Cameron Smith — a linebacker capable of effectively dropping back into pass coverage — will do their part to contain Washington State's explosive offense early. The run game needs to develop for USC to have any chance of rectifying its season, however, and that starts Friday against the Cougars.
Stephen Carr and Aca'Cedric Ware getting solid gains on sustained drives early points to a USC win. If Washington State grinds down the Trojans' rushing attack early, it's another loss.