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More than you need to know about Cougs vs. USC

NCAA Football: Washington State at Southern California preview USC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars will (hopefully) finally play a football game after a three-week absence when they travel to face the USC Trojans in Los Angeles on Sunday (4:30 pm PT, FS1). Yes, that’s a Sunday night game, but don’t expect any Carrie Underwood.

USC is undefeated, having narrowly survived its first two games against Arizona State and Arizona before soundly dispatching the Utah Utes. The Cougs last played on Oct. 14, a loss to Oregon, which was preceded by an opening night victory over Oregon State.

Last time WSU played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it ended highly controversially. The time before that, WSU ground out an ugly, but glorious win without scoring an offensive touchdown. Will there be controversy this time? How about touchdowns? Let’s find out by looking at the major players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Trojans.

When USC has the ball...

You might remember that USC’s offense is run by Graham Harrell, former Mike Leach quarterback at Texas Tech and offensive assistant at WSU. Harrell, predictably, runs the Air Raid for the Trojans. But, like every other version of the Air Raid deployed in Leach’s coaching tree, it’s not the pure stuff we saw the Cougs run.

Still, USC throws the ball a lot. Quarterback Kedon Slovis has very Air Raid looking numbers through three games, completing 70.7 percent of his passes for 970 yards. However, he is putting up a fairly normal 7.3 yards per attempt, which is surprising given the dominant group of receivers USC deploys.

USC has a tall stable of pass-catchers, all ranging from 6’1 to 6’5 with athleticism to boot. Amon-Ra St. Brown leads the team with 19 receptions for 266 yards, with Drake London close behind grabbing 15 passes for 238 yards and a score. The leaper extraordinaire Tyler Vaughns has caught 18 for 185 and a touchdown, you may remember him well from his freshman season when he made a ridiculous 4th-down catch in Pullman to keep USC alive in a game it ultimately lost.

Because this is the Air Raid, the list of pass-catchers with relevant numbers doesn’t stop there: Bru McCoy has put up 13 catches for 142 with a touchdown, and tight end (yes, tight end!) Erik Krommenhoek has scored on two of his four catches—look for him in the redzone.

The pass is still king in USC’s version of the Air Raid—62 percent of offensive plays are passes, sacks, or QB runs. But that’s not the absurd split that WSU typically ran, and that is largely because this is USC, and USC always recruits running backs.

Not one back has featured primarily yet. Markese Steppe has carried the ball 26 times for 135 yards, but he missed the Utah game due to injury. Vavae Malepaei has 33 carries, but just a 3.94 average. Stephen Carr also checks in 23 attempts for a more impressive 5.3 per rush. There’s also a big play wild card in there—Kenan Christon is averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt on his six carries.

As a unit, the USC offense ranks pretty solid by advanced metrics, checking in at 14th in SP+, and that’s against the 99th-ranked WSU defense. The Trojans have faced some pretty tough defenses so far in Utah and Arizona State, but have still come out above average in terms of success rate on passes (43.1 percent, 46th nationally) and runs (41.8 percent, 42nd nationally). Overall, USC is 39th in success rate, which is the percentage of downs they have that gain what is deemed a “successful” amount of yards (half of yardage on first down, all of yardage on third down, for example).

WSU’s defense has been a sieve, ranking 123rd overall in success rate by allowing opponents to gain the necessary yardage on nearly half of downs. In particular, the Cougs have struggled to stop the run, allowing successful plays on 53.2 percent of carries.

The Trojans have been reasonably good at converting third and fourth downs, but they should see that improve against a Wazzu group that has allowed teams to convert on 60 percent of opportunities.

However, third downs conversions won’t always be necessary, particularly if USC runs the ball. The Cougs are allowing runs of 10 yards or more on nearly 30 percent of opponent carries—USC gets 10 or more roughly 21 percent of the time.

The Trojans are obviously a passing-focused offense, but given the talent they have in the backfield, it might behoove them to run the ball a little more. While pass defense is not necessarily a strength for WSU, it’s definitely the more capable side with a combination of solid work by defensive backs and a decent pass rush.

If and when USC gets into the redzone, that may be an area where WSU can keep up. The Trojans have scored touchdowns on just 11 of 20 trips through three games, and have gone completely empty five times. WSU has allowed TDs nine out of 10 redzone trips, but perhaps close to the goal line, where the windows are tighter, they can slow down USC.

That is, of course, if they can stop USC’s big receiving corps in the endzone. That’s a tough ask, so expect the Trojans to have a good day offensively.

When WSU has the ball...

The good news for WSU is that has a very good offense. The primary strength of the USC defense has been the pass rush, where they have sacked the quarterback on 8.6 percent of dropbacks (passes + sacks). The Cougs have allowed sacks on just 2.7 percent of dropbacks, and that doesn’t include the scrambles from Jayden de Laura. The freshman’s ability to avoid potential sacks could be huge against the Trojans.

USC’s defense is solid overall, ranking 33rd in SP+. They rank in the the top third of success rate, allowing successful plays 38.4 percent of the time. The reason for hope on the WSU side is that the Cougs ranks 13th in SP+, while ranking 29th in success rate (44.2 percent).

The redzone, however, could be a struggle. Missed redzone chances hurt the Cougs against Oregon, and USC has been tough close to the goal line. The Trojans have allowed touchdowns on just three of eight total trips. WSU so far has punched it in the endzone on five of nine redzone opportunities.

One way to avoid the redzone altogether is to score on big plays, and the Cougs have shown the propensity to gain big chunks of yardage with great frequency—netting 15 or more yards on 27 percent of dropbacks and 10 or more yards on 29 percent of carries.

USC has been somewhat stingy in the passing game—giving up big gains (15+) on just 17.8 percent of dropbacks. However, that can be somewhat swayed by the Trojans’ high volume of sacks. If the quarterback gets the ball off, there are opportunities for big plays.

But the real opportunities for chunks of yardage may be on the ground. The Trojan defense has allowed 10 or more yards on 30.6 percent of opponent carries so far this season (factoring out sacks), while the Cougs have put up 10 or more yards on 29 percent of rushes.

Deon McIntosh has already shown the ability to gain big chunks on the ground, and the potential return of Max Borghi adds another major weapon for the Cougs in the running game. There are big yards available if WSU hands it off.

The Trojan defense is no slouch, but Wazzu has shown it can move the ball, and it just might have what is necessary to negate USC’s biggest strength while also punishing its biggest weakness. WSU should be able to move the ball, and it would help a lot of they scored on some big plays to skip right past the red zone.

The Bottom Line

WSU’s defense is still a work in progress, so many games will come down to whether or not the Cougar offense can keep up. How much will de Laura and crew have to score to win? That depends on if the Cougar defense can do a little bending, not breaking, and continue USC’s offensive struggles in the redzone. Turnovers, as always, would help massively.

The Cougs can score on USC, so they should be able to keep pace as long as they can put together some big plays and get touchdowns, not field goals.

Buckle up for a a high-scoring, fast-paced affair on Sunday Night in Los Angeles.