Cougars, Trojans return to the field on Sunday night after long layoffs
Washington State and USC, two teams eager to return after coronavirus-driven layoffs, are set to finally meet on Sunday night in Los Angeles. This game was originally scheduled for Friday night but was moved back two days to give both teams more time to prepare and give the Trojans a chance to clear more players.
For the Cougars (1-1), this will be their first game since Nov. 14. Games against Stanford and last Friday's Apple Cup vs. Washington were both canceled as the team dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak. USC (3-0) had to cancel last Saturday's game with Colorado because Pac-12-mandated protocols left them too short along their offensive line, but both teams should have enough players available for this game.
The Trojans are currently in first in the Pac-12 South but with a shortened schedule, Clay Helton and company know they can't afford any losses. Washington State is led by first-year head coach Nick Rolovich, who is looking to put his stamp on the program after Mike Leach's eight-year tenure. Under Leach, the Cougars went 2-2 against USC but the Trojans won the most recent meeting, a 39-36 home victory during the 2018 season.
Washington State at Utah
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -13.0
When Washington State Has the Ball
After eight years of running the Air Raid, the Cougars have switched to the Run-and-Shoot under first-year head coach Nick Rolovich. Although it's just been two games, the offense has already shown its potential, thanks in part to the early performance by true freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura.
In his first two games, de Laura appears to be Washington State's next prolific quarterback as he's thrown for 548 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He dazzled at times against both Oregon State and Oregon, but it will be interesting to see how he does after the long layoff. He reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 and would have missed the games against Stanford and Washington had they not been canceled, but he is expected to be out there on Sunday.
Pressure would be a way for USC to try and rattle the young signal-caller, but the Trojans' defensive line has been hit by opt outs, injuries and could be impacted by COVID-19 protocols for this game as well. USC has generated eight sacks in three games and a ball-hawking secondary already has four interceptions. For the Cougars, Renard Bell and Travell Harris have been de Laura's favorite targets, as the duo has combined for 32 catches for 219 yards and three touchdowns.
Unlike Leach, Rolovich is more inclined to run the ball and even though he's been without the versatile Max Borghi because of injury, Washington State has been effective on the ground thanks to the emergence of Deon McIntosh. The senior is fourth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (119.5) as he's averaging a robust seven yards per carry. Borghi returned to practice this week so if he's able to return, the Cougars will add his versatility and big-play ability (he had 1,414 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019) to challenge a Trojans defense that is giving up 176 rushing yards per game.
When USC Has the Ball
It's Year Two of the Air Raid for the Trojans and sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis has picked right up where he left things off. He leads the Pac-12 in passing yards per game (323.3), completion rate (70.7 percent), and has thrown five touchdowns with two interceptions. He has connected with 12 different receivers in three games and five players already have recorded 13 or more receptions. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns have been the most frequent targets with Drake London not too far behind and averaging a team-best 15.9 yards per catch.
USC knows it can't expect Slovis to do all of the work, so offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is trying to establish more consistency with the running game. Vavae Malepeai, Markese Stepp, and Stephen Carr have each logged 23 or more carries and have two rushing touchdowns apiece thus far, but the trio is averaging a collective 4.7 yards per carry, so there's still room for improvement. Slovis has been sacked six times and the team has six turnovers in three games, so those are other areas that need to be tightened up.
Defensively, Washington State is currently last in the Pac-12 in points (35.5) and second to last in yards (516) allowed per game. The Cougars opponents thus far have been Oregon State, led by Jermar Jefferson one of the nation's top running backs, and Oregon, the conference's No. 1 offense, so that should be taken into consideration, but it won't get any easier against Slovis and the Trojans' deep collection of skill position players.
Both Washington State and USC are coming off of long layoffs and likekly won’t be at full strength due to COVID-19 protocols. The Cougars have been sidelined longer and while it's possible that the Trojans will be more short-handed, especially along the line of scrimmage, there appears to be a rather sizeable depth and talent disparity favoring the home team.
USC needs this game more because of their Pac-12 title aspirations. As long as the Trojans don't shoot themselves in the foot too many times with costly turnovers and penalties, they should come away with a comfortable win at home in their return to the field.
Prediction: USC 31, Washington State 17
Podcast: Coaching Carousel and Week 14 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.