After an uneven performance in its season-opening victory against Hawai’i, and with fresh memories of an upset-filled week one of college football, the USC football team enters its home and Pac-12 opener against Washington State knowing two things: There is definite room for improvement, and a win is never guaranteed.
“We want to improve from week one to week two, like everybody does,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “We want to be more consistent in our passing game, which will help with our third down production. We want to finish drives inside the five, and pitch a shutout on turnovers [on offense].”
True, the Trojan offense left much to be desired in the passing game. Neither of the team’s redshirt sophomore quarterbacks, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, played lights-out against the Warriors, though key drops by their receivers and some leaky pass protection from the offensive line exacerbated things considerably.
But lost in the mystery surrounding which player will start at quarterback has been the Trojans’ solid rushing attack, led by two inexperienced but talented running backs in redshirt sophomore Tre Madden and freshman Justin Davis. The duo combined for 183 rushing yards on 32 carries in their collegiate debuts at the position, giving the offense a much-needed spark.
Though the emergence of a clear-cut starting quarterback would be a heralded outcome from Saturday’s game, look for the offense to again lean on its ground game against the Cougars’ run defense. Last week against Auburn, Washington State allowed 295 yards on 46 rush attempts, good for an average of 6.4 yards per rush in a 31-24 loss. With the possibility of senior tailback Silas Redd returning to action, USC could have an even more potent rushing attack.
“I don’t know that [the running game] will change much [with Redd back],” Kiffin said. “We ran more times [against Hawai’i] than we have in three years here, and that was a product of the way the game was going. That’s a great thing to have, so hopefully we’ll have that again Saturday night.”
On defense, USC will face a Cougar attack molded by head coach Mike Leach that focuses primarily on throwing the ball. Starting quarterback Connor Halliday had 65 pass attempts against Auburn last week, falling just one shy of the school record. He completed 35 of them, good for 53.8 percent, and had one touchdown and three interceptions, including one fourth-quarter pick in the end zone as the Cougars were on the verge of tying the game.
“He played a really great game [against Auburn],” Kiffin said. “He played really well, was really accurate. He was very poised in the pocket, didn’t let the rush get to him and kept his eyes downfield. He played really well, and he had some great games last year, too.”
Despite Halliday’s high volume of throws, the Cougars showed a formidable run game against Auburn that had been absent in Leach’s first year at the helm. After accumulating just 349 rushing yards last season, Washington State ran 23 times for 120 yards against the Tigers, good for 5.2 yards per rush.
“We know they’re pass-heavy, but we think they’re gonna try and run the ball too,” senior defensive end Devon Kennard said. “They did a better job running the ball [against Auburn] than they have in the past, and I think they’re gonna try and do that on us too.”
With Washington State’s newfound success on the ground, stopping the team’s aerial attack will be a more difficult task. Leach is well known for his prolific passing offenses, and his reputation is not lost on members of the Trojan secondary.
“You have to keep your eyes open, and you can’t take any plays off,” redshirt junior safety Josh Shaw said. “You have to treat every down like it’s third down. Last week they passed the ball [a lot] versus Auburn, and if you go back to last year they were passing even more than that.”
In the USC secondary, questions linger as to who will start. Redshirt junior Anthony Brown and sophomore Kevon Seymour started at cornerback against Hawai’i, though both left the game early because of injuries. Senior Torin Harris and redshirt freshman Devian Shelton played in their absence, and both were shaky at times covering receivers down the field. Shelton was burned on a last-minute Hail Mary that gave Hawai’i its only touchdown.
The entire secondary will have the luxury of leaning on the defense’s stout front seven, which is coming off of a dominant effort against the Warriors. It recorded seven sacks and three quarterback hurries even without the presence of senior defensive end Morgan Breslin, who earned an All-American honorable mention last season but didn’t step on the field against Hawai’i because of an injury.
That relentless pressure played a large role in the four interceptions that Hawai’i quarterback Taylor Graham threw, and could continue to help take pressure off of a largely unproven secondary.
“[Pressuring the quarterback] is always important, but especially in this game because of the amount of passing,” Kiffin said. “We’re gonna have to play really well with our front because we’re gonna have to leave a lot of guys deep to be able to cover them.”
USC and Washington State have not played since 2010, when USC won 50-16 in Pullman, Wash. The Cougars have not beaten the Trojans since 2002, and have not won at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000. Their last win against a ranked opponent was a 34-23 win over No. 16 Oregon in 2006.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1.