USC secured the Pac-12 South and a spot in the conference title game with a 38-24 victory over Colorado two weeks ago. Let’s take a look at how the Trojans match up with the two possible North champions: No. 14 Washington State and No. 20 Stanford.
The Cougars handed an injury-depleted USC team its first loss of the season in a 30-27 nailbiter in Pullman, Wash., in Week 5. Washington State’s pass defense gave redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold fits, limiting him to 15 completions on 29 pass attempts for 164 yards, an interception and a late fumble that sealed the loss. The Trojans found some success on the ground, rushing for 163 yards and three touchdowns, but those numbers were buoyed by junior running back Ronald Jones II’s 86-yard score in the second quarter. USC struggled to slow Cougar running back Jamal Morrow, who accounted for 138 total yards and two touchdowns on 11 touches. Washington State quarterback Luke Falk threw for 340 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but did so on 51 attempts.
A four-year starter, Falk momentarily lost the top spot to redshirt sophomore Tyler Hilinski but regained control for wins over Stanford and Utah the last two weeks. Falk has been an efficient passer throughout his career, racking up yardage and touchdowns on a high volume of short pass attempts. As his 6.73
yards-per-attempt for the season indicate, Falk doesn’t have the arm to beat the Trojans deep, but he will methodically work his team down the field using quick reads and check-downs. Morrow and James Williams lead Washington State’s backfield, but they haven’t had much success this year: The two have combined for 892 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry. They’re much more dangerous receiving out of the backfield, combining for 786 yards and eight touchdowns on 105 receptions.
The Cougars have also made their mark on the defensive side of the ball this season. They rank 11th in the country, allowing just 304 total yards per game. The defense is slightly more effective against the pass due to a swarming defensive backfield and pass rushers such as defensive end Hercules Mata’afa, who ranks ninth in the country with 9.5 sacks on the year. Darnold’s struggles against the Cougars were no fluke; the team uses pre-snap movement along the defensive line to confuse quarterbacks and force them into bad decisions (the Cougars have forced 27 turnovers this season).
USC defeated the Cardinal 42-24 in Week 2 thanks to big performances from Darnold (21-of-26 for 316 yards and four touchdowns), Jones (116 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and freshman running back Stephen Carr (119 yards, 10.8 yards per carry). After giving up a 75-yard touchdown to running back Bryce Love early in the game, the Trojans’ defense stiffened, holding quarterback Keller Chryst to just 172 yards on 28 attempts.
K.J. Costello replaced Chryst before the Cardinal’s loss to Washington State three weeks ago, and while the redshirt freshman has been solid, Love unquestionably leads this team’s offense. The junior running back is second in the country with 1,723 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on over 8.8 yards per attempt. Love rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown on 9.4 yards per attempt against USC in September, but without the long touchdown run, his stats fall to 85 yards on 5.3 yards per carry. Love already broke the single-season record for runs of 50-plus yards with 11, which could be an issue for a Trojan defense that is susceptible to giving up large chunks of yardage.
A lot of those big plays have come in the passing game, but Stanford has neither the personnel nor the approach to target USC’s weak secondary downfield. The way to attack USC’s defensive backfield is with deep bombs, as UCLA proved on Saturday, but Costello isn’t on Josh Rosen’s level, and Stanford doesn’t have the lightning-fast receivers that can burn the Trojans’ cornerbacks.
On the other side of the ball, Stanford is ranked 90th in the country in yards per run attempt allowed at 4.7 and is giving up 171.7 rush yards per game. The pass defense is still good, allowing just 216.3 yards per game and 13 touchdowns. The Cardinal may give up yardage, but they rank 29th in the country in points per game allowed with 20.7.
As of right now, the Cougars appear to be the tougher opponent. While lacking a top-level offensive playmaker like Love, their defense is better than the Cardinal’s on the ground and through the air. We will learn more about Stanford and Washington State this week, as both sides both play ranked opponents in No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 15 Washington, respectively. If Stanford can stand up to Notre Dame’s fifth-ranked rushing attack, feeding the ball to Jones and Carr may not be the best approach against the Cardinal. However, if Washington State’s offense can find traction against Washington’s fifth-ranked defense, the Cougars could be even more formidable than they were earlier this season.
Path to the Pac-12 Championship Game
Washington State clinches a berth with a win over Washington, while Stanford must beat Notre Dame and also hope the Cougars come up short against the Huskies.