The USC Trojans storm into Martin Stadium on Friday with a perfect record and No. 5 ranking that belies some of the challenges they’ve had so far this season.
Unranked Texas nearly got them at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, while Cal hung around with them for three quarters. Additionally, a comfortable win over Stanford that took a little while to get cooking looks less impressive with each passing week.
What does all that mean for Friday’s showdown with the No. 16 Washington State Cougars? We caught up with Richard Mejia of Conquest Chronicles to get his thoughts in advance of the heavyweight matchup.
CougCenter: How would you characterize USC's season so far? About what you expected, more impressive than you expected, less impressive than you expected?
Conquest Chronicles: This season has been a mixed bag of tricks. Generally, I’ll say this season has impressed me—but for the wrong reasons. No one, and I mean no one, saw this defense coming. USC has always been a team that has had a plethora of talent of defense, but in the last ten years, they’ve been heavily reliant on their offense play. They’ve bent all season long, but have yet to break—and it stems from the pressure upfront. The combination Uchenna Nwosu, Christian Rector and Porter Gustin have generated a lot of pressure, sacks and tipped passes at the line of scrimmage.
The running game and the rise of true freshman Stephen Carr has also been a pleasant surprise. No one really expected Carr to much playing time behind workhorse Ronald Jones II, but the two backs have had enough touches to sustain an efficient offense. After Jones DNP last week, the season load has almost evened out as the duo has combined for 620 rushing yards and eight touchdowns through the first four games. Carr’s rise has been out of necessity. The injuries to receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Joseph Lewis as well as tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe have left USC depleted and have forced the offensive playcalling to get creative. This allows for an excellent segue to next question…
Are USC fans concerned at all about Sam Darnold?
Sam Darnold might be the most polarizing figure in college football at the moment. At home however, you’ll find a lot of Darnold apologists. It’s understandable for folks to feel this well. He spent all summer working on chemistry with a mostly new receiver core after losing Juju Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, DaQuan Hampton to the NFL. Unfortunately, most of those new receivers were freshman and a lot of them have suffered long-term injuries. For crying out loud, Jalen Greene was a former QB recruit for the Trojans, was eventually converted to WR, and now is the third receiving option on this team. In addition to lack of receivers, the guys he does have consistently drop passes. Dropped passes isn’t a stat kept in college football, but I’d guarantee USC’s drop rate would lead all teams in the Top-25.
Most USC fans aren’t really concerned for Darnold, but I’m a part of the minority who been very vocal amount concerns with Darnold. He’s always calm and collected, but man he makes some terrible throws. He locks on Deontay Burnett (USC’s only competent WR right now) and will throw to him regardless of coverage. Burnett is barely six-feet tall and is your prototypical shifty, sure-handed slot receiver. Yet they have him running routes deep downfield when and that’s when Darnold gets in trouble. No check downs, no progressions in his reads, just bombs away to Burnett every time. I have optimism Darnold will improve as the season goes on, but he needs to start making better reads late in games.
Deontay Burnett, USC's best receiver, seems to be questionable for the game. How would his absence change things?
It would force Darnold to spread the football around, and I think that’d be the best thing for him. With 33 receptions on the year, Burnett is far and away our entrenched primary receiver. Our “number two” receiver Stephen Mitchell Jr. is second with 14 receptions and the second-string RB Carr is third with 13. Darnold has a strong trust in Burnett, but too often it becomes his undoing. Keeping a safety on top of Burnett on man-to-man coverage has is how you dispel this passing attack—Darnold won’t throw anywhere else. Not having Burnett out of the game would manufacture passes on bootlegs and screens, plays USC has shown the most success with. It seems counterintuitive to say a team would be better without it’s best receiver, but if it forces Darnold to be a better QB because of it, then I’m all for it.
Who on the defensive line is able to generate pressure most consistently, and what makes him so good?
Outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has been an absolute beast for the Trojans this season. On paper, Nwosu’s stats don’t jump out—he only has one sack and two tackles for loss, but that doesn’t tell the story. Nwosu is always setting the edge and attacking the quarterbacks. One of the more amazing stats in all of college football is Nwosu is tied for second among all defenders in defended passes with eight. The next closest edge defender in batted passes is Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards with four. Nwosu has great burst and wins right off the snap. He can get off the tackle with his long arms, but’s his intelligence and awareness that has made him this player already in his senior season. Porter Gustin and Rector have racked up the sacks this season, but they wouldn’t have as much success without the consistent attention garnered by Nwosu.
If WSU pulls off the upset, it probably will happen like this ...
The Trojans lose the time of possession battle. As much success as the Trojans have had on defense, they are still the kings of the missed tackles. The teams that have given USC the most trouble have consistently had success with short and intermediate passes and in doing so, controlled time of possession. Too many times USC has given up first downs on third and longs as well as fourth down conversions due to poor tacking. If Washington State is going to win this game, they need to stay aggressive on offense and not turn the ball over to give USC more chances to score and Sam Darnold a chance to finally figure things out. I wholly expect for the Air Raid to give USC lots trouble—however my concern for the Cougars is when the pressure generated by the Trojan’s front-seven finally gets to Falk. If he’s forced to make erratic passes under pressure, USC’s very opportunistic secondary will be waiting to make a play.
On offense, the Cougars must extinguish the running game. If they can figure how to neutralize both Jones and Carr, then they can force Darnold into making bad passes. Ultimately, this is a battle of two of the Pac-12’s best going head-to-head on a national spotlight and showcasing talent outside of the SEC. I expect both teams to come out swinging and have an early candidate for game of the year.
If you’d like to read my answers to his questions, head on over here.