I feel like I’ve been writing the same column for the last five weeks. If anyone actually has a bead on this USC team, I’m all ears.
It’s crazy: the fifth-ranked Trojans are undefeated through their first four games of the season, meaning their playoff aspirations remain very much alive — and they have beaten so-called “rival” teams in three of those matchups, taking care of business against Stanford, Texas and Cal in consecutive weeks. Yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something has been missing so far this fall. USC fans may still be dreaming big for the postseason, but you can bet they’re relieved that the playoffs are months away — if the Trojans even make it there.
There is plenty to get excited about when watching this year’s team play. Junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett has established himself as a true top option following the departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster, freshman running back Stephen Carr has brought an unexpected nitro boost to the Trojans’ backfield and sophomore cornerback Jack Jones has three interceptions in his last two games.
And how about defensive end Christian Rector? After totaling four tackles across 12 games last season, the redshirt sophomore has gone off for two forced fumbles, one recovery, 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for a loss so far this season. Thanks to numerous emerging threats, the Trojan defense has become a force to be reckoned with, and explosive plays have become a possibility on any snap on offense.
Then again, so have turnovers. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold has thrown seven interceptions this year, and though some have not been his fault, the total is third highest in the FBS. Add in a lost fumble from Carr last week, and USC is tied for 97th nationally in ball security with eight total giveaways.
Thanks to their ball-hawking defense, the Trojans still own a positive turnover margin (+3), and they rank top 20 in the FBS in both first downs and third-down conversion percentage, meaning they do move the ball on offense. Nevertheless, they also entered the fourth quarter tied against Western Michigan and Cal, and they needed overtime to beat Texas. It seems like the team isn’t struggling offensively as much as it is struggling to make timely plays, especially early in the game. USC was able to scrape by in its opening four games, but continuing the trend will likely prove costly tonight.
For better or for worse, undefeated No. 16 Washington State will be the litmus test for this Trojans squad. The short week is a real concern for a banged-up roster, and it means the defense might not be fresh enough to bail USC out with turnovers, especially facing the Cougars’ superstar quarterback Luke Falk. Falk is the best signal-caller the Trojans have faced all season by a significant margin, spearheading a Washington State passing attack that ranks fifth in the country.
The onus, then, will be on Darnold to prove that he is indeed the best quarterback in the nation. He may have to prevail in an old-fashioned shootout; fortunately, it’s exactly the type of game the gunslinger loves to play. Outperforming Falk and overpowering the Cougars’ defense would undoubtedly be a massive boost to Trojan fans and Darnold alike, and a win tonight may even begin carving an unlikely path back into the Heisman Trophy race.
But as has been the case all year, it’s almost impossible to predict how things will play out in Pullman. I can imagine almost anything: an impressive road victory a la the Trojans’ trip to Washington last season, to a shocking blowout loss in a packed, raucous and cold Martin Stadium. Win, and USC continues to survive and advance — optics be damned. Given how unimpressed AP Poll voters have seemed by the Trojans so far this fall, however (USC has dropped one spot from its preseason No. 4 ranking despite remaining perfect), a loss could be disastrous, especially against the team’s highest-ranked opponent of the year.
So — and I’ve definitely said this before — this week marks a turning point for head coach Clay Helton and his squad. The Trojans will aim to put all doubts to rest with a road win against a strong opponent, and the Cougars look to keep their season on the rise while killing USC’s. Let’s see which team seizes the moment and establishes its playoff credentials.
This isn’t a trap game; it’s a legitimate clash of Pac-12 titans. Brace yourselves.
Ollie Jung is a senior studying print and digital jouranlism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs on Fridays.