The 2013 college football season got off to a rocky start for the No. 25 USC Trojans, as they survived a dreadful first-half effort to defeat Hawaii by a count of 30-13. The result may be favorable, but fans, columnists and coaches across the country have been picking the Trojans' lackluster performance apart.
The question is, which stars must step up in order for USC to survive another potential scare against Washington State?
The first conference game is always competitive for teams, but USC is in a different boat than the average squad. Not only are the Trojans a team with a name that jumps off the page, but they have as many questions to answer as any other team in the nation.
With a coach on the hot seat after a lackluster season opener, those questions are growing louder as USC enters a meeting with Washington State.
If the Trojans are to survive a matchup against one of the nation's most potent passing attacks, they'll need to be able to rely on their stars. While we all know what to expect from Heisman Trophy candidate Marqise Lee, the rest of the team doesn't get off that easily.
It all starts at quarterback.
Class: RS Sophomore
Week 1 Statistics: 10/19, 95 YDS, 1 TD, 1 INT
Playing against Hawaii, USC quarterback Cody Kessler was afforded the luxury of being excused from a disastrous opening 23 minutes. USC managed just three points, Kessler suffered a safety and, to top it all off, threw an interception on Hawaii's 25-yard-line.
Hayes Pullard picked Taylor Graham off mere seconds later to make the save, and Kessler responded by throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor, but this was far from an impressive outing.
Who should be USC's starting quarterback?
Against Washington State, Kessler will need to get USC's offense going early in the game if the Trojans hope to win. The Cougars boast a lethal passing attack, and they may not play outstanding defense, but Washington State held Auburn to 99 passing yards on 10-of-20 attempts.
Name value may say otherwise, but Kessler doesn't look to be anymore dangerous than Nick Marshall of the Tigers.
FOX College Football reports that Kessler has been named USC's starting quarterback after splitting halves with Max Wittek against Hawaii, which elevates the pressure more than it alleviates it. There is no room for error at USC, no matter how well its defense may have played against Hawaii.
As always seems to be the case, the burden of blame will rest on the quarterback.
Fortunately for Kessler, he'll be throwing to superstar wide receiver and Heisman Trophy candidate Marqise Lee. Despite having a disaster at quarterback, Lee caught eight passes for 104 yards during the season opener.
Chances are, USC will draw up screen plays and do whatever else is necessary to get Lee the ball. It's on Kessler to execute.
USC's Rushing Attack
Silas Redd missed USC's season opener against Hawaii due to a knee injury, but hopes to return to action against Washington State, per Greg Beacham of The Associated Press. With that being said, there is a possibility that Redd misses yet another outing.
Who should be USC's starting running back?
That's why I refuse to place the burden of expectation upon one player.
In Redd's absence, the Trojans went off for 192 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Sophomore Tre Madden picked up 109 yards on 18 carries, and freshman Justin Davis picked up 74 yards and a score on 14 attempts.
Washington State just allowed Auburn to pick up 295 yards and two touchdowns on Aug. 31. This presents the perfect opportunity for USC's group of running backs to rise up as a unit and collectively take the opposition down.
It also allows one player to potentially separate himself from the pack and take over the majority of the carries. Regardless of what happens on the depth chart, USC must keep its defense on the sidelines for as long as possible. Pounding the rock is the best way to achieve that.
USC Pass Defense
This is what you call an "all hands-on-deck" type of game.
The Cougars may not be the most prominent football program, but they run Mike Leach's air raid system. For that reason, the USC defensive backfield will be tested as they are forced to stop a high-octane offensive attack.
Who will win?
That calls upon every player defending the pass to shine.
Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday threw for 344 yards during the Cougars' 31-24 loss to the Auburn Tigers. He only managed one touchdown, but the message has been sent, as Washington State attempted 65 passes.
It may be hard to imagine Washington State duplicating that number, but we're talking about coach Leach. No team attempted as many passes as the Cougars in 2012, when they compiled an FBS-best 624 throws.
The Trojans better hope that the pass defense comes to play.
Fortunately, USC played well against Hawaii, holding quarterback Taylor Graham to 16-of-41 passing. He threw one touchdown, but the Trojans also walked away with four interceptions, including a pick-six by junior cornerback Josh Shaw.
It's all encouraging, but that doesn't mean they aren't under pressure; the Trojans are in for an offensive slug fest.