USC Trojans vs. Washington State Cougars Complete Game Preview
The USC Trojans enter their first conference game on Saturday, a tilt with the Washington State Cougars. Having beaten the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in their season opener, USC has gained some confidence and will go into their home opener looking to extend their record to 2-0.
But the Cougars—as demonstrated in last week's match against the Auburn Tigers—won't concede a win to the Trojans easily. It's early, but they look more competitive than they did in last season's 3-9 effort, though they might not be ready just yet to upend the Trojans.
Before we get into this matchup, let's cover the bases:
KICKOFF: 7:30 p.m. PT
PLACE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
TV: Fox Sports 1
RADIO: 710 ESPN
Spread: USC (-15)
USC Keys to Victory
USC hasn't lost to Washington State in a decade, and the last time was in a thrilling overtime upset in Pullman, with the Cougars winning 30-27. Aside from that blunder, the Trojans have tamed the Cougars 34 of the past 38 times, including the last seven in a row. It's been two years since these two squads have faced each other, but history and the crowd atmosphere are on USC's side.
For the Trojans to win, they need to come out confidently and competitively on offense, something we didn't see against Hawaii. Granted, that was for lack of a definitive starting quarterback and this time around, the Trojans know who will be leading the team onto the field. If Cody Kessler can get the offense into a rhythm early, USC should get out to a quick lead on the Cougars.
Wide receiver Marqise Lee had only a couple drops against Hawaii—he caught 8 of 10 balls—but both were critical drops. He let a sure-fire touchdown slip from his grasp, and also let go of what would have been a much-needed first down. This week, he and fellow receivers Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers need to be in sync with Kessler for the Trojans to really thread the needle against the Cougars' weak secondary.
On the ground, USC just needs to do what it does best: pound the rock up the middle with no mercy. Starter Silas Redd still sits out with injury, but Tre Madden and Justin Davis have played extremely well in his place.
Defensively, the Trojans' defensive line is already looking outstanding after just one game. USC leads the country with seven sacks, and specialists Dion Bailey, Devon Kennard and Leonard Williams are looking to rack up even more against the Cougars. While they won't give fans cause for pause, USC's secondary is still an area for concern. True freshman Su'a Cravens recorded a very impressive interception, but aside from him and Bailey, the secondary looked to be weak in coverage. To avoid a scary situation, the Trojans need to avoid giving up any big passing plays, something that Connor Halliday will be looking to make happen.
Washington State Keys to Victory
For Wazzu to come away with a big victory, they need to exploit the weaknesses of USC's young and inexperienced secondary. Halliday has the skill to throw for big plays; he averaged 9.8 yards per completion against Auburn, and could easily carve up the Trojans' secondary just as efficiently. If they can, it's going to be a long, long evening in Los Angeles.
On defense, the Cougars need to lock down Marqise Lee, which might be hard to do, as it would leave Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers open. If they throw Lee too much shade, the other two receivers could shred them, so it's important for Wazzu to keep a body on USC's receivers at all times.
Lastly, they need to get after the quarterback. Kessler only has one start under his belt, and if last week is any indication, nerves could really hamper his ability to flourish. If they can rattle him, the Cougars can keep this game competitive much longer than the Trojans would like them to.
Players to Watch: USC
Kennard missed all of 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle, but you wouldn't know it with how he played against Hawaii. From the very first play of scrimmage, he got after Taylor Graham and laid a punishing sack on him, with help from safety Dion Bailey. Kennard has played musical positions for much of his career at USC, going from defensive end, to middle linebacker, back to end and now outside linebacker in Clancy Pendergast's new system. Though he has done well in all of his roles, this year is probably the first in which he is playing in the best position for his skill set. Look for him to make his presence known against the Cougars, and to acquaint Connor Halliday with the Coliseum grass.
In his running back debut with the Trojans, Madden also played as if he had not missed an entire season with injury. Many questioned his ability to do well as a converted linebacker, but his performance in Hawaii left no doubt. He had 18 carries for 109 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per touch. He has a powerful running style and is an elusive back, which will allow him to skate through the Wazzu defense for extra yards.
The true freshman scored USC's only rushing touchdown against the Warriors last week, putting on display the skills that left many speculating that he would be the co-starter to Silas Redd. With he and Madden in the backfield, expect USC to run the ball at will, catering to establishing the run game while the quarterback situation continues to hammer itself out.
Check out USC's Week 2 Depth Chart here.
Players to Watch: Washington State
This sophomore wide receiver is poised for a breakout season with the Cougars, and is looking to pad his highlights with impressive catches against the Trojans. He had a nearly 100-yard game against Auburn (9 receptions, 81 yards), and with the Trojans still trying to get its secondary together, Marks could have a very good game against it.
As previously stated, Halliday is a huge threat to the Trojans, as he can sling the rock for days. He has thrown for over 3,000 yards in career, and 25 touchdowns. He's also thrown 20 picks, and USC will be looking to force him into throwing even more. If he can avoid pressure from USC's menacing front seven, he will have a field day hitting his receiving targets. Look for him to strive towards another 300-yard performance, though it is in USC's best interest to eliminate that possibility.
Check out Wazzu's Week 2 Depth Chart here.
What Are They Saying
"I thought they threw the ball awesome. The quarterback … really was in rhythm."-Lane Kiffin on Washington State outlook
"To be frank with you, we actually have a decent amount of Pac-12 talent," quarterback Connor Halliday told reporters Monday. "That team in 2010, half those kids wouldn't have started for a good high school team."-LATimes
USC, which has won 70% of its conference games, opens 2013 Pac-12 play by hosting Washington State, a team it hasn't faced since 2010 due to the Pac-12 scheduling rotation. It has been a decade since the Trojans last lost to WSU and overall they have won 80% of their games against the Cougars, who have been victorious just 3 times in Los Angeles since 1941.-USC GAME NOTES
USC wins 35-17. It won't be the glorious blowout that Trojan fans long for, but it will be a conference win that USC needs to continue down the right path in 2013. Cody Kessler will settle down under center and confidently lead the Trojans to the win, and the team will continue finding its rhythm as it navigates through its soft opening stretch of games.
The Cougars will give the Trojans a challenge early on like they did the Auburn Tigers, but once USC gets the offense running on all cylinders, the talent mismatch will show itself. Lane Kiffin and his team will be able to exhale after defeating their first conference opponent of the season, while Mike Leach and his squad will be looking for answers.