This space typically is reserved for a review of what we learned about the Washington State Cougars in the previous weekend’s game. But I’m going to be honest: Beyond the fact that I don’t think there was anything particularly interesting about a 45-7 beatdown of Nevada, I just don’t really want to think about that game anymore.
THAT’S BECAUSE IT’S USC WEEK Y’ALL!!!
This is the weekend we’ve had circled on our calendars since the schedule came out months ago. We knew the USC Trojans would begin the season highly ranked. We knew WSU could win its first four games. Consequently, we knew that if both teams did what they were supposed to do in the first month, this would be a clash between a pair of ranked opponents in a Friday primetime matchup with the entire nation watching on the country’s premier sports network.
We knew that this could be huge. And now, it is.
There’s a reason I bought my tickets to this one as soon as they went on sale, and there’s a reason the game sold out early (by WSU standards, anyway): These kinds of games haven’t come around real often for us. Pullman has hosted a number of important games and consequential matchups over the years — to be truthful, this isn’t even the highest stakes game Martin Stadium has hosted in the past 12 months — but there’s something unique about a big-time early season matchup on your home field when everything seems possible.
At least, I presume it’s unique. I’ve never actually experienced one. And you probably haven’t, either.
You know when the last time was that it was still September and a ranked WSU team hosted another ranked squad? 1989! Before that? 1952! WSU/USC in 2002 was close, taking place on the first weekend of October; however, both teams were ranked in the mid-teens. That’s nice, but these Trojans are a top 5 team with a Heisman candidate quarterback and their eyes fixed squarely on the College Football Playoff. And the Cougars — the WSU COUGARS — are poised to give them a legitimate game.
This is special, man.
Beyond the historical nature of this contest, the thing I find most interesting is that I’m honestly not sure how good either one of these teams are. I feel like I have a little better read on USC than WSU; the Trojans have played a lot better competition and been absolutely brilliant for stretches, as one would expect from a team with that level of talent.
They’ve also looked incredibly vulnerable, particularly as Sam Darnold has taken a fondness to throwing the ball to the other team.
The question is whether the Cougs actually are good enough to take advantage of that vulnerability. The ranking suggests they are. There are large swaths of games we can point to that pass the eye test. And I think we all certainly believe WSU is much better than Cal, which took a tie game into the fourth quarter against the Trojans just last weekend.
But we also can acknowledge that USC isn’t just a good team; USC is a good team with superlative talent, which presents a very different kind of physical challenge for WSU than any of the teams they’ve faced this season. And this is precisely the kind of team that have given WSU fits under Mike Leach.
Think about the way that UCLA, Colorado, UW and Minnesota mucked up the passing game last season with fast, physical defensive backs. That’s exactly what WSU will face on Friday — USC has been one of the best in the country at preventing opponents from “successful” passing plays — and I don’t think we know how the Cougars’ young receivers are going to respond to that kind of challenge. Additionally, the offensive line that we all presumed would be a strength hasn’t been, and this is a big and fast front they’ll be trying to keep out of Luke Falk’s face.
There’s no doubt that WSU is exceptionally well coached. But have the Cougs closed down the physical tools deficit with the additions of guys such as Isaiah Johnson-Mack, Renard Bell and Jamire Calvin to the point where USC’s athletes won’t be able to just sit in base coverages and get themselves into the passing lanes? Can the inexperienced middle of WSU’s offensive line hold up against a physical challenge the likes of which Fred Mauigoa and B.J. Salmonson have never seen?
I’m hopeful, but unsure.
Oddly enough, the thing I’m most confident about is the defense’s ability to hold USC to around 30 points. This could obviously blow up in my face, but WSU’s defense has been its most reliable unit, and through four games, Darnold hasn’t performed as advertised. His weapons are banged up. This is not an offense firing on all cylinders.
The one thing that gives me major pause is the Trojans’ excellent rushing attack, which will undoubtedly look to push around the Cougs’ smaller front. But WSU is well rested after heavily rotating players on defense the last two weeks, and the run defense has been the strength of the WSU defense for years now. I’d also be fairly stunned if Alex Grinch didn’t have some tricks up his sleeve that he’s been holding back.
That’s also to say nothing about the absolutely bonkers crowd that will be filling Martin Stadium to the brim. Oregon 2014 was crazy, and Stanford 2015 was loud. This is going to be those two put together times a factor of 20. The defense should be able to feed off that energy.
I am so insanely pumped to be there for it and experience Martin Stadium in a way we don’t often get to. And I can’t wait to learn more about the Cougs this weekend in what is actually a pretty low risk proposition for WSU. A loss to a presumed CFP contender would be nothing to be ashamed of, would only be the first loss of the season, and because USC plays in the South, it probably wouldn’t even be all that damaging to the Cougars’ ultimate goal of winning the Pac-12 North.
But win? Against the No. 5 team? On this stage? With that crowd?
Let your imagination take care of the rest.
What We Liked
OK, fine ... let’s revisit Nevada for a few minutes. I already mentioned the defense, but this performance demands higher praise that glittering generalities.
WSU allowed just 2.8 yards per play against the Wolf Pack. That’s easily the lowest of Alex Grinch’s tenure, and in fact stacks up as a historically great performance. Since 2000, which is as far back as Sports Reference’s database goes, this was the fourth game in which WSU’s defense allowed less than three yards per play. Only Idaho in 2001 (2.7 ypp) and Colorado in 2004* (2.0 ypp) were better.
*A game that somehow gives the Hawaii debacle a run for its money in the “worst Seattle game ever” rankings.
Just 151 total yards allowed, nine tackles for loss, five sacks, three interceptions, two pass breakups, and seven quarterback hits? That’s a flat dominant performance. I don’t care how bad Nevada is. That’s just silly, and is exactly what a defense is supposed to do against a team that bad. And it almost certainly would have been a shutout if Tyler Hilinski hadn’t been washing his hands with butter before entering the game.
If WSU is going to beat USC, the defense is going to need to come up big. Keep it under 30, and they’ll give the offense a real chance.
Jalen Thompson, come on down again. Two interceptions? You’re ridiculous, son. Keep it up.
What Needs Work
The rushing offense anytime someone not named Jamal Morrow carries the ball. Again. I don’t know how this team gets better in this area, but here’s what I do know: We’re a third of the way through the season against the lightest competition WSU will face all year and it’s still not fixed.
We’re quickly entering “this team probably is just bad at running the ball and we’re all just going to have to deal with it” territory. I hope that’s not true, because as we all know, life gets real hard without at least a serviceable rushing attack.
You already know. Let’s do this.