Now, the season begins. The No. 16 Washington State Cougars welcome the No. 5 USC Trojans to Pullman for a little Friday Night Lights on ESPN. The Trojans roll onto the Palouse with an undefeated record, grinding out close-ish wins over Texas, Western Michigan, and Cal while waxing then-No. 14 Stanford, which has since dropped out of the polls with a loss to San Diego State.
Wazzu is kind of the polar opposite. Their best win is over (maybe-bad?) Boise State, and they’ve torched everyone else. The Cougs haven’t scored fewer than 45 points in their last three games and WSU quarterback Luke Falk has been damn near perfect, completing 74.6 percent of his passes for 1,067 yards for 11 touchdowns and one interception.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold hasn’t quite had the Heisman-campaign start to the season that many Trojan fans envisioned after watching that sorcery in last year’s Rose Bowl. Although Darnold’s tossed seven interceptions (to nine TDs), they’ve been more a product of trying to do too much rather than misreads or general bad play.
After pointing out USC’s 13-game win streak under Darnold, Trojans coach Clay Helton rhetorically asked, “The most key stat about being a quarterback?
"The production of wins and losses.”
Luke Falk has won more games than any starting quarterback in the conference.
The Trojans are directed on offense by Tee Martin. Martin backed-up Peyton Manning at Tennessee for a couple of years before starting and leading the Volunteers to a National Championship in 1998. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2000 (before Tom Brady) and even spent some time in NFL Europe before resigning to coaching.
At its core, USC is still very much a power running program. They’ll spend most of their time in gun with a single tailback, running zone and stretch in their double tight end sets and counter/power to formation strength.
Under Darnold, the Trojans are decisively more quick-game oriented in their passing attack. Wide receiver No. 80 Deontay Burnett is heavily involved in motions, both into the backfield (behind the QB and RB) and all the way across formation. Going across formation is typically his prerequisite for an arrow to the flat, providing an outlet or quick option.
Burnett is a little banged up, having missed some practice time this week, but Helton and the Trojans expect him to go. He has more than twice as many receptions (33) as anyone else on the team, and he is targeted on roughly a third of all pass attempts. Since their second-leading receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. likely is sidelined, this volume probably will continue, despite the injured shoulder.
When USC does take shots past the short-game, they’re typically at verticals. They’ll run an outside receiver down the numbers and an inside receiver down the seam and bank on those athletes making plays.
Tight ends also will be involved in this game more than previous Wazzu opponents. Darnold is very comfortable outside the pocket and loves to work tight end drags across the middle of the field off play-action bootlegs.
Darnold’s biggest strength is his ability to make strong throws on the run. Simply flushing him from the pocket won’t be enough to limit his options in the pass game.
Defensively, the Trojans are going to do a lot of what Luke Falk and the Cougs have seen before. USC Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast is famed for his 5-2 front defenses. He’s now running a 4-2-5 base with USC, and they like to play lock-down man coverage underneath.
Southern Cal will mix up a Dime coverage that functions very similarly, but puts another coverage defensive back on the field instead of a linebacker. They made that adjustment in the second half against Cal, mixing in a lot more soft zone and quarters coverage and getting good results.
The safeties are aggressive and rarely bail to the deep zone. They’ll jump intermediate combination routes if that’s where they see the QB going.
What has me concerned about USC
Good vs Good: Wazzu excels offensively at Success Rate — a measure of how frequently the offense can run successful plays and stay ahead of the sticks — ranking 6th. The Trojans rank 8th nationally at defending against it. USC will put WSU in long down-and-distance scenarios they haven’t often had to overcome this season.
Wazzu is 3rd nationally at third down conversion rate (56.7 percent) thanks in part to those being short-yardage downs due to their Success Rate. USC is 52nd on defense, allowing just over 34 percent of conversions. WSU should be able to march on SC, but the battle on each drive will happen on third down where WSU has a bit of an edge, especially if they can have productive second downs.
Ball Hawks: The Trojans already have seven interceptions through their first four games. More importantly, 42.5 percent of all incompletions are caused by defenders getting their hands on the ball (16th). They average 6.0 pass break ups a game (4th), including eight on the season from Uchenna Nwosu, an outside linebacker.
Their secondary is very active, including Defensive Player Of The Week No. 25 Jack Jones, who nabbed two of USC’s four (somewhat gift-wrapped) interceptions against Cal.
Being too good?: The Wazzu front-six has been nasty. The opposing QB has been dropped 17.5 percent of the time he drops back in a passing downs, a rate that leads the nation. The Cougs sack the quarterback on 14 percent of all dropbacks, good enough for third nationally. How could this be a concern? Sam Darnold.
Darnold is an extremely pocket-mobile quarterback who almost looks more comfortable throwing on the move without his feet set than he does standing tall in a clean pocket. If WSU pressures Darnold like we suspect they can, some extra consideration should be paid to keep him bottled up.
The Trojan offense is arguably at its most lethal in those scenarios where Darnold is making a Scooby-Doo play in the backfield.
The Stage: After Boise State’s dud against Virginia, it’s pretty apparent Wazzu ‘Ain’t Played Nobody’ (TM). By one measure, the strength of schedule currently sits at 129th out of 130 FBS teams. The Men Of Troy have already squared off against a secretly decent Cal team and walloped Stanford...and went to overtime in a showcase non-conference game against Texas.
The last time Pullman hosted a game with bigger magnitude, the Cougs laid an egg in the Apple Cup with a trip to the conference championship on the line.
Lost in all the “What if this was Saturday and we got GameDay?!” chatter, is that this game is alone in the spotlight on Friday. Everyone in the college football world will have eyes on Pullman and the Cougs are used to doing their weird stuff late at night when only drunks, gamblers, and college football degenerates are still up watching.
Ronald’s Return: USC running back Ronald Jones is expected to be back on the field after an ankle sprain kept him sidelined against Cal. Jones has 322 yards on 59 carries this season (5.5 YPA) and you don’t get to be the starting tailback at USC without being a ridiculous stud.
Behind him is a guy that’s almost more lethal, purely from the standpoint of how multiple he’s used within the offense. Stephen Carr has 298 yards on 47 carries (6.3 YPA) and another 130 yards on 13 receptions. They run him on all sorts of routes, including verticals, out of the backfield and he’s a definite match-up nightmare for any of WSU’s backers or Nickels.
Brute Force: The SC offensive line hasn’t necessarily bullied anyone, and there’s no reasonable expectation aside from looking at a scale that they’ll be able to against the fast and aggressive Wazzu front, either. The Cougs have historically schemed very well against power running teams under Alex Grinch, but you can’t overlook the size advantage inside and wonder just how well the under-sized #SpeedD can hold up throughout four quarters.
Keely Eure, who covers the Trojans at USCFootball.com, was kind enough to lend her insights.
What are you most confident in about the USC Trojans?
“I’m most confident in USC’s defensive line, which was the difference maker last week against Cal. The pressure they brought eventually forced Ross Bowers to make poor decisions leading to six turnovers. USC's edge rusher, Uchenna Nwosu, is arguably the MVP of the season so far (minus that guy Sam Darnold) with a nation-leading eight pass breakups. The Trojans also have a surging breakout player in Christian Rector. Rector has filled the void left by the injured Porter Gustin, who leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss in just the two games that he's started.
“Now, a deciding factor to USC's defensive line, in regards to Friday's game, is Clancy Pendergast. I'm very curious to see how the defensive coordinator has prepared this unit for Falk and the Cougars, after we saw him introduce the dime package last week against Cal. With Wazzu's pass-happy offense, Pendergast might elect to use more defensive backs than linemen and thus, how impactful USC's defensive line could be is up in the air (no pun intended).”
What has me confident in the Cougs
Luke Loves Quarters: Luke Falk got the offense running in high gear against two weak opponents that both gave Wazzu schematic looks at what they can expect from USC. The Trojans spend most of their time in quarters or two-high man coverage. WSU eviscerated Nevada’s man-coverage last weekend and Oregon State’s quarters the weekend before that.
Falk probably destroys Cover 4 more than any other defensive coverage teams have thrown at him throughout the years. The athletes will be better Friday night but the scheme won’t be something he hasn’t already seen a lot of this season. And shredded.
RBs vs LBs: Last season Morrow was utilized out of the backfield against OLBs in man-coverage. He only has 13 receptions this year compared to James Williams’ 37 receptions, but I’d look for him to be real heavily involved in the pass game on Friday. Whether quarters or man, USC is relying on their outside linebackers — when they aren’t in dime — to be able to cover the highly active Coug backfield in space. That’s a challenge.
The more USC stunts to get after Falk, the more they’ll have OLBs manned-up on RBs out of the backfield, which would tilt an edge to WSU.
HERCULES and friends: The concern is that Darnold might escape the pocket and create some streetball plays; the flip side is that he might not escape anything. USC is middle of the road in pass protection, with Darnold going down on 4.6 percent of his dropbacks, and the Wazzu front is faster and more aggressive than anything they’ve faced.
Wazzu averages over eight TFLs per game (12th), and Hercules Mata’afa averages two of those. A whopping 24.2 percent of opponent plays are a turnover, TFL, or sack (3rd). The Cougs have lived in the opponents’ backfields, and Darnold is prone to make some questionable throws when he’s pressured.
So, Ms. Eure ...
What about Wazzu should concern USC?
“USC should be most concerned about Wazzu's ability to score and score fast. While I just finished praising USC's defense, in the past four games, we’ve seen how they take some time to settle in before they shut down their opponent. The problem with that? Wazzu is averaging over 40 points a game, and it might be a long night for the Trojans if the Cougars get in an offensive rhythm. Yet, Wazzu’s potent offense could present a problem for USC's own attacking unit. Sam Darnold and co. have yet to find a consistent stride this year, and they have struggled to be efficient in the red zone. Injuries have added to the issues that the offense is dealing with, as they are still trying establish cohesive chemistry and most importantly, figure out what gets them into the end zone. If Wazzu gets an early lead, that pressure will only be exacerbated. As Clay Helton said this week, ‘If we're not putting the ball in the end zone consistently, it's going to be a hard night.’
“Also: Watch out for Hercules Mata'afa. The redshirt junior is a top concern for USC, especially because their offensive line has been shaky throughout the season. As offensive coordinator Tee Martin said, ‘We’ve definitely seen it on film. He's a guy you need to watch out for.’ ”
How I see this game playing out
The Vegas line opened at +4.5 and has sat at +3.5 after being bet down pretty quickly, with the Over/Under holding at 65.5. Advanced metrics similarly give USC a 57 percent chance of winning with a margin just less than a field goal, predicting a final score of WSU 28.8 - 31.7 USC.
I think this will be just a little more high scoring than that.
Wazzu flusters the SC defense early, getting after Darnold a few times and trading field position for the first couple series. The Coug offense rolls in the second quarter to open up a one-score lead. USC hits big plays in the third quarter to keep them in the game against a now-methodical Cougar offense that pushes the scoring pace with consecutive scores.
Some sort of fourth quarter shenanigans occur per #Pac12AfterDark by-laws and the game comes down to whichever offense is on the field last.
Final Score: WSU 38 - 35 USC
And Keely ...
“It sounds cliche, but I can really see this game going either way. USC's offense has been hit or miss, so it wouldn’t surprise me should the Trojans come up short if they can't keep up with Wazzu's air raid. On the other hand, USC's defense has been strong enough to where getting to Falk and keeping the score low enough for the offense to muster enough points is also very feasible. In the end, I think USC gets it together and comes home with a win.”
Huge thanks again to Keely for answering our questions. You can follow her on Twitter at @keelyismyname. See you guys in Martin.