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Cougars need to avoid another slow start against Trojans

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WSU football returns to the field Saturday to host USC at Martin Stadium. The Cougars are in search of their third win of the season. Slow starts are one of several issues that have cost WSU games this season.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The WSU football team will take to the field for the ninth time this season on Saturday afternoon to face USC at Martin Stadium. By USC standards, the Trojans are not having a noteworthy season sitting at 5-3 with losses to Boston College, Arizona State, and Utah. The Cougs are dealing with their own sense of disappointment holding a 2-6 record. A loss to USC eliminates WSU from the possibility of being bowl eligible.

The 2014 edition of WSU football can be described as "the season that got away." Ever since the opening game, the words "what might have been if..." have tortured the minds of WSU fans as they think about the momentary and ongoing breakdowns that have swung several winnable games away from the Cougs this season.

As competitive as the Cougs have been at times, they are coming off one of their least competitive weeks after getting shellacked by Arizona 59-37. The final score does not reflect the magnitude of the beatdown the Wildcats put on the Cougs. Arizona held a 52-16 advantage after the third quarter after jumping out to a 31-0 lead to start the game. WSU tacked on three touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Connor Halliday continued to air it out against the Wildcats' defensive reserves.

Despite the fact that injuries are not officially discussed as part of team policy, it was clear last week that the Cougs were banged up, especially in their secondary which is young to begin with. True freshman Kevin Griffin had his redshirt burned with fellow cornerback Charleston White being out after an injury sustained against Stanford. Darius Lemora did not play at safety against Arizona either. White and  Lemora were both back at practice this week. White is listed as the backup to Pat Porter at cornerback and Lemora is listed as the starting free safety.

Regardless of what their record may be, anytime you go head-to-head with a USC team, you will be facing some exceptional athletes that were highly regarded in the recruiting process. USC has several notable playmakers on each side of the ball.

Offensively, USC is a threat to both throw and run ball. Quarterback Cody Kessler has been efficient throwing the football with a 70.8% completion rate. He has passed for 2,148 yards on 265 attempts (8.1 YPA) and has 20 touchdown passes against only 2 interceptions. His top target is Nelson Agholor who has 58 receptions on the year for 643 yards and seven touchdowns. Javorious Allen gives USC a solid run game. Allen has already eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season after eight games. He has 1,010 yards on 177 carries for a 5.7 YPA.

Defensively, the Trojans feature Leonard Williams up front on the line. Williams has been battling some recent injuries, but is expected to play Saturday. Williams is a projected first round pick in next year's NFL draft. The other force to be reckoned with is Su'a Cravens, a hybrid linebacker who leads the Trojans with 9.5 tackles for loss on the season.

The most interesting narrative for this game is that it is a good measure of the talent gap between the Cougs and a team that is at the top of the division in terms of talent. WSU's play against Oregon seemed to suggest that the Cougs have made strides in narrowing the talent gap with the top of the Pac-12 conference.

To properly showcase their talent, WSU is going to have try to avoid the multiple Achilles heels that have overshadowed solid efforts and cost them games throughout the season. In particular, slow starts have taken a toll on the Cougs all season long. The offense has tended to sputter out of the gate with the defense and special teams giving up big plays early to put the Cougs in a hole. The Cougs are a respectable seven-point underdog, but it could be a long day if USC is able to jump out to an early lead.

The 1:30 pm kickoff time is the earliest of the season so far for WSU. Fans will be able catch the entire game and still make early dinner reservations. Hopefully, the Cougs won't give anybody reason to slip out for an early cocktail.

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