The Washington State Cougars host the USC Trojans in Pullman on Saturday afternoon (12:30 pm PT, FOX) at Gesa Field. Both teams are off to disappointing starts to the 2021 campaign, but only one team’s start was enough for a coach to lose his job.
Clay Helton is now the former head coach after being fired this week. Helton was also a former two-time interim USC head coach, and he has been replaced by USC’s latest interim head coach, Donte Williams. This new interim was coaching the secondary and held the title of associate head coach.
What will this coaching change mean? It’s hard to say. Will the Trojans come out fired up with something to prove? Seems likely, but that would have also been the case regardless of the coach after their surprising loss to Stanford last week.
This preview will not take the estimated mental state into account. We’ll focus on the numbers and the games that have been played. Let’s look at the important players and trends that will impact the Trojans vs. Cougs.
When USC has the ball...
Kedon Slovis enters his third season as the primary quarterback for USC, and he’s yet to capture the explosive ability he had as a freshman. Slovis averaged 8.9 yards per attempt (YPA) attempt his first year in Los Angeles, but finished last season at just 7.3 YPA and so far through two games in 2021 he’s gaining just 6.1 YPA.
USC’s passing game effectiveness has struggled in kind. The Trojans are 77th in Expected Points Added Per Pass Play (EPA/Pass) as measured by cfb-graphs.com. Here’s a quick explainer on EPA from the site:
EPA TRANSLATES YARDS TO POINTS IN CONTEXT. A 3 YARD GAIN ON 1ST AND 10 IS BAD; A 3 YARD GAIN ON 3RD AND 2 IS GOOD. HOW CAN WE COMPARE? EPA TAKES INTO ACCOUNT THE DOWN, DISTANCE, YARDLINE, AND GAME STATE OF EACH PLAY TO CALCULATE THE ADDED POINT VALUE OF EVERY PLAY. EPA IS AN EXPLOSIVENESS-WEIGHTED MEASURE OF SUCCESS: HOW OFTEN DID YOU PROVIDE POSITIVE VALUE, AND ON AVERAGE, HOW MUCH POSITIVE VALUE DID YOU ADD?
So, how does WSU’s defense stack up? So far, not so good. The Cougs are 89th in EPA/Pass defensively. So, either the Washington State defense is going to look better against a struggling USC passing game, or the USC passing game is going to look better against a struggling WSU pass defense. The reality is probably somewhere in between, and it will come down to how well the Cougs can control USC’s playmakers on the outside.
The most dangerous of those playmakers is Drake London, a 6-5 wide receiver who has already grabbed 16 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown this season. London had a relatively easy five catches for 92 yards against WSU last year, and will again be a very difficult matchup.
Tahj Washington, the Memphis transfer, has been Slovis’s second-favorite target, grabbing 10 catches for 103 yards a touchdown. The Trojans’ passing offense has been heavily focused on getting the ball to capital cities of English-speaking nations, as London and Washington have caught 26 of 51 total completions through two games.
That’s where an active Jaylen Watson would be huge. If the star WSU cornerback could mitigate one of USC’s top targets, it could disrupt the Trojan offense. Watson’s status is unclear after he was seen on the sideline in a sling during WSU’s game against Portland State game last weekend.
If the Cougs do find a way to slow down the USC passing attack, they’ll still have to contend with a pair of running backs that are both averaging over 5.0 yards per carry. Vavae Malepeai leads the Trojans with 159 yards on 29 carries, while Keaontay Ingram has amassed 130 yards on 25 attempts. USC’s rushing attack has been much more potent than its passing attack, ranking 18th in EPA/Rush. The Cougs have been middling defending the run against poor competition, ranking 68th in EPA/Rush allowed.
The Trojans haven’t been spectacular on offense, but they will be far and away the most talented group that WSU’s defense has faced this season. London is a real issue on the outside but even if the Cougs can shut him down, USC’s ground game is a real threat.
When WSU has the ball...
USC’s defense is primarily to blame for the team’s lackluster start to the season, and ultimately what led to Helton’s firing. The Trojans held San Jose State to just seven points, but third-down defense, some timely interceptions, and a missed field goal made that score look better. Against Stanford, the USC defense fell apart.
The Cardinal shredded USC with big pass plays on the ground and in the air. Stanford QB Tanner Mckee put up 10.2 YPA, while running back Nathaniel Peat took an 87-yard run to the house.
Outside of that run, USC has been decent against opposing rushing attacks. Overall, the Trojans are 40th in EPA/Rush allowed. Still, WSU has one running back in particular—Max Borghi—who can make a big play at any time. With Deon McIntosh also making steady contributions, the Cougs are 24th in EPA/Rush.
Can WSU take advantage of a USC defense that ranks 119th in EPA/Pass allowed? Jayden de Laura had an efficient day against Portland State, but it was not the same story against Utah State. Still, the Trojans have shown the pass to be a weakness defensively, even at times against San Jose State.
Taking care of the ball will be key for WSU’s offense to keep the Cougs in the game. USC used turnovers in part to slow down San Jose State, but struggled mightily when Stanford refused to give the ball away. If WSU can keep possession, there will likely be big plays available.
USC has yet to record a sack this season but logged 4.0 sacks against the Cougs in 2020. That pressure led to mistakes from de Laura. The WSU offensive line needs to hold its own to give the second-year quarterback and his receivers a chance to shine.
The Bottom Line
USC’s offense has more weapons than Portland State and Utah State. The Trojans will be a big test for Jake Dickert’s defense, particularly in the ground game and in defending London on the outside. However, USC has yet to blow any team away offensively. The Cougs will need to prevent big plays and hope for a couple of turnovers on defense to give their offense a chance to win the game.
Despite last season’s struggles against USC, there’s a real chance WSU can move the ball on a Trojans defense that has yet to impress and was picked apart by Stanford. The Cougs need to be effective in the ground game with Borghi and McIntosh and keep de Laura’s jersey clean so he can find big plays down the field.
Winning the turnover battle, and converting opportunities in the red zone, will be important for both teams on Saturday, but most important for WSU.