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Washington State vs. USC Prediction: Trojans Aim to Stay Perfect Against Scrappy Cougars

Trojans hope to avoid upset at home against a Wazzu team they've historically dominated.

USC's debut season under Lincoln Riley rolls on Saturday as the undefeated Trojans host the Washington State Cougars in prime time.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 6

USC improved to 5-0 (3-0 in the Pac-12) with a 42-25 victory over Arizona State in a game that looked like it might be the Trojans' first hiccup of the season. But a convincing second-half performance turned a 21-17 halftime lead into a rout. Riley and his coaching staff once again made the necessary adjustments to seize control of the game, something the Men of Troy were unable to do under former head coach Clay Helton.

Up next is an upstart Washington State team that is arguably a few plays away from being undefeated as well. Head coach Jake Dickert has done a hell of a job in his first full season at the helm, as the Cougars (4-1, 1-1) already have upset Wisconsin on the road and last week defeated California 28-9 at home. Wazzu's only blemish thus far is a 44-41 home loss to Oregon two weeks ago in a game the Cougars led 34-22 with less than seven minutes remaining before the Ducks mounted a furious rally.

Now Dickert and Co. will try and slow down the 10th-ranked scoring offense (42.2 ppg) in the country as well as solve USC's surprising defense, which ranks 31st in points allowed per game (19.6). The Cougars also will be trying to end a three-game losing streak to the Trojans, or at least stay closer to them. USC has outscored Wazzu 83-27 in the last two meetings.

Washington State at No. 6 USC

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: USC -13
Tickets: As low as $54 on SITickets.com

When Washington State Has the Ball

One of the biggest things that Washington State has to avoid is turnovers. No team has won that aspect of the game against USC this season, and the final tally usually ends up heavily in the Trojans' favor. They are No. 1 in the nation for most turnovers gained (15) and fewest lost (1, tied with three others). In fact, USC committed its first turnover of the season last week, becoming the last FBS team to do so.

The Cougars are certainly capable based on their record, but they aren't an offensive juggernaut either. Oregon State seemingly had the Trojans on the ropes a couple of weeks ago, but in the end, four giveaways ended any hopes of a Beavers upset. Wazzu quarterback Cameron Ward, a transfer from FCS Incarnate Word, has acclimated himself well to the FBS level, completing 69 percent of his passes for 289 yards per game with 13 touchdown passes to rank third in the Pac-12 in all three categories. But he also has tossed seven interceptions, including that critical pick-six in the heartbreaking loss to Oregon, so it's something he will have to be mindful of against a USC defense that leads the country with 12 interceptions (returning three of them for TDs).

Wazzu also will need to sustain drives to help limit the Trojans' opportunities with the ball. Last week, the Cougars were 6-of-14 with two interceptions on third down against Cal. For the season, they are converting 39.3 percent of the time on third down, a rate that will need to increase against USC. Wazzu also ranks last in the Pac-12 in time of possession (26:27), which does not bode for its defense when you consider what damage the Trojans may be able to do if they have the ball for more than half of the game on Saturday.

When USC Has the Ball

What do you continue to say about this offense as the weeks pass? How many times can you read that the Trojans just need to keep doing what they're doing and things will work out? Well, I do have one thing to discuss. Riley's offense continues to improve in all categories most weeks except for one. I have no idea if the unit's continued success came as part of a deal with Satan that involves continued struggles with penalties, but Galactus almighty they have a problem with flags.

If USC wasn't so prolific on offense and defense, we'd see a lot more articles on this team's discipline. If you look just at their penalties per game, you'd think this situation was manageable. The Trojans are tied for 70th in the nation in that respect at 6.6. But when you shift your gaze to penalty yards per game that's when the narrative shifts. USC is getting docked 65 yards per game because of the yellow laundry. That ranks 95th overall — and that's after showing some improvement in recent weeks.

If you want to put together a blueprint for beating the Trojans, start with converting third downs, taking care of the ball (and taking it away once or twice), and letting USC beat itself with self-inflicted mistakes and penalties. The Trojans would be wise to place more emphasis on staying disciplined and playing mistake-free ball.

Final Analysis

The Trojans get this one at home in front of a rather raucous Coliseum. The noise, the environment, and the adjustments should be more than enough for USC to have a complete game in all three phases. Washington State hasn't enjoyed a lot of success in the Coliseum or against the Trojans in general, to be honest. USC owns a commanding 61-10-4 lead in this series and has lost just once in the last seven home games with the Cougars (2013).

The Trojans are just two weeks from their bye, and we're about a week or so away from the first College Football Playoff rankings. Riley knows how the selection committee works, having been a benefactor of their rankings while at Oklahoma. If he's truly positioning USC for a potential berth, expect the scoreboard and number of snaps the starters see to play more of a role moving forward. Style points do matter.

This is the type of game the Trojans need to win convincingly if they want to sell people on the idea that they're a legitimate playoff contender. Washington State may not be ranked or a national brand, but the Cougars are a solid enough team that this matchup will resonate, especially if they somehow pull off the upset. Fortunately for Riley and Co., this is a USC team that seems to be firing on all cylinders right now and may still have another level to reach.

Prediction: USC 46, Washington State 20

Podcast: Week 6 Preview, Predictions, the Latest in Coaching Changes, and Picks Against the Spread

— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.

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