The football team comes into Friday’s game against Washington State at the Coliseum reeling from a brutal dismantling on the road against Texas, their second in as many weeks, leaving them 1-2 on the season. The loss sent the Trojans tumbling out of the top 25, making the matchup a battle of two unranked squads. The Cougars, who beat the Trojans last season, remain undefeated despite their unranked status, having blown out their opponents in all three games. The Trojans should be their toughest test so far, but USC’s performances the last two weeks make it hard to be certain.
USC Offense vs. WSU Defense
Deciphering the USC offense after three games this season is a perplexing task. The talent on the field doesn’t match up with the disappointing results it put up over the last two weeks.
Freshman quarterback JT Daniels has flashed some moments of brilliance, but he’s struggled to get going for the most part after the opener against UNLV. He hasn’t thrown a touchdown since that game; it’s been 89 pass attempts since his last score.
The inconsistency of the offensive line has played a large role in this. The performance of the line has made Daniels’ job difficult, forcing him to escape the pocket often and draw errant throws. His receiving corps hasn’t been much help either.
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyler Vaughns has done a good job in the short passing game, with 14 catches for 157 yards, but has yet to make any plays as explosive as those in the 2017 season. Junior receiver Michael Pittman does not look like the player he was at the end of last year and over the offseason, failing to get open consistently and dropping multiple passes. The tight ends have been a total non-factor in the passing game as well, contributing 25 receiving yards between the three of them.
In fact, the only real weapon for the Trojans’ passing game has been freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. St. Brown has dazzled, racking up 304 receiving yards, adding more than half of those last week as he seemed to be the offense’s only bright spot in the loss to the Longhorns. Although the competition they’ve faced so far hasn’t been elite, the Washington State secondary, led by redshirt sophomore safety Skyler Thomas looks impressive, holding their three opponents to a combined 398 yards passing on sub 50 percent completion while grabbing eight interceptions.
USC will need its playmakers to step up big to keep the passing game afloat. The ground game hasn’t been any better for the Trojans either. After finishing last weekend’s game with negative rushing yards against a defense that had been ranked 90th in the nation before the game. After doing a solid job for much of the game against Stanford in that department, the offensive line struggled mightily in run-blocking. Perhaps more significantly, USC running backs only took 12 carries the entire night. Fortunately for USC, the Cougars have struggled to defend the run. This game will be a good chance for the Trojans to get their ground game back on track.
WSU Offense vs. USC Defense
The Cougars lost their longtime star quarterback this offseason as Luke Falk made his way to the NFL, leaving graduate student Gardner Minshew to hold the reins of the offense. Minshew has thrown for over 400 yards a game on 70 percent completion with eight touchdowns to boot. He was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after his performance last Saturday against Eastern Washington in which he exploded for 470 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Minshew will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, with three receivers averaging more than 60 yards a game and a running back in James Williams with 127 receiving yards on the season. Sophomore wide receiver Davontavean Martin has been dominant as the Cougar’s No. 1 receiver this year, with 290 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 24 catches. The passing attack will provide a tough challenge for a USC defense that got worn down against Texas. The lapses in coverage, lack of pass rush and missed tackles that were prevalent last week cannot show up again if the Trojans want to stop the Washington State offense from going off the way it has thus far.
Senior outside linebacker Porter Gustin will be unable to play until the second half due to a targeting call against Texas, making it even more imperative for USC to find ways to generate a pass rush. Look for redshirt junior Christian Rector and freshman Kana’I Mauga to be featured heavily off the edge on passing downs. The secondary has been solid for the most part, but redshirt sophomore strong safety CJ Pollard was exposed at times in his first start last week. It’ll be worth noticing how he — or freshman Talanoa Hufanga — performs at that spot.
The air-raid offense WSU runs places much more emphasis on passing than running, and that has been executing its offense incredibly well so far within those parameters. The Cougars have only rushed the ball 67 times through three games, but don’t sleep on their ability to get things done on the ground, as their running backs have averaged a respectable 4.45 yards per carry and scored.