Can the Trojans bounce back in time from another heartbreaking loss to handle the Cougars’ aerial assault?
The USC Trojans (5-3, 4-2 Pac-12 South) make their final lengthy regular-season road trip to face the Washington State Cougars (2-6, 1-4 Pac-12 North) on Saturday, November 1 at 1:30 p.m. PDT at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., and in front of a national Pac-12 Networks cable television audience. This is the 72nd meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding a 58-9-4 edge. However, due to the Pac-12’s divisional format, this is the first time USC has traveled to the Palouse since a 50-16 victory in 2010. Though USC has won eight of the past nine meetings, Washington State delivered a stunning 10-7 upset in last season’s matchup at the Coliseum.
A week ago, the Trojans saw a game come down to the final seconds for the third time in their past four outings, falling 24-21 at then-No. 19 Utah. Ute QB Travis Wilson found receiver Kaelin Clay for a one-yard TD pass with eight seconds remaining. The Trojans led 14-10 at the half, but failed to capitalize on a series of opportunities to take a two-score lead in the third quarter. USC also had a chance to run out the clock with a 21-17 lead, but failed on third-and-2 and fourth-and-2 with just more than two minutes remaining. Meanwhile, the Cougars fell behind then-No. 15 Arizona, 31-0, and never got than 14 points the rest of the way in an eventual 59-37 home defeat.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (5-3 at USC, 39-32 career) is in his first season at USC after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as a USC assistant under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). In Pullman, Wazzu headman Mike Leach (11-22 at WSU, 95-65 career) is in third season leading the Cougars. After taking the Washington State to its first bowl game in 10 years last season, hopes were high that the Cougars could push into the upper half of the Pac-12 North. But tough early losses to Rutgers, Nevada and Oregon put a damper on the Cougs’ possibilities, and WSU has struggled to maintain consistency of late.
Washington State Offense
Everything the Cougars do on offense starts in Leach’s brain – and the past two years, it ends with the execution of senior quarterback Connor Halliday. Washington State’s attack leads the Pac-12 with 489.9 passing yards per game – and the Cougars don’t even pretend that they want to run the ball. WSU is averaging just 45.9 yards rushing, far and away the lowest in the conference and near the bottom of major college football. Not only does Halliday hold all of the Cougars’ career records in the major passing categories, but he also holds nine of the top 10 positions in Wazzu history when it comes to single-game passing attempts; 11 of the top 12 positions in the single-game completions book; and eight of the top 10 in passing yards in a single game. In the Cougars past three outings, Halliday has attempted 70, 69 and 79 passes. Last week, he completed 56-of-79 for 489 yards against Arizona. And, that’s not even his most incredible performance of 2014 – in a 60-59 loss to Cal on Oct. 4, Halliday threw for a conference record 734 yards and tied a career high with six TDs. Unsurprisingly, in an offense that looks to pass about 80 percent of the time, he has thrown 10 interceptions to go with his 32 TD passes this season.
At least nine different receivers have caught a pass in every game the Cougars have played in 2014 – and Washington State has three receivers ranked in the national top 10 in receptions. Physical senior Vince Mayle leads the group with 71 catches (13.0 average, eight TDs), while classmate Isiah Myers and sophomore River Cracraft each have 59 catches. Both average around 12 yards per grab. Myers leads Wazzu with nine TDs and Cracraft has seven. A step down from that group are four other wideouts who will each likely see at least one pass sent their way: junior Dom Williams (31 catches, six TDs); redshirt freshman Robert Lewis (24); senior Rickey Galvin (23 catches); and freshman Calvin Green (13).
Both of Washington State’s redshirt freshman running backs are much bigger threats in the passing attack than carrying the football. Factoring in the 20 times that Halliday has been sacked, the Cougs are averaging a shockingly low 2.4 yards per carry. Fireplug Jamal Morrow is averaging 4.4 yards per carry on 59 totes, while the bigger Gerard Wicks averages 3.7 yards on 57 carries and has all four of the Cougs’ rushing TDs this season. Morrow has been the bigger threat in the passing game, ranking fourth on the team with 42 receptions (7.7 yards per). Wicks has 15 receptions.
The Cougars’ offensive line started the season rather green, but until sophomore Sam Flor replaced classmate Riley Sorenson in the lineup at center last week, the same group of five had started each game. The leader is junior left tackle Joe Dahl, who is an honors candidate. Classmate Gunnar Eklund was the only other returning starter and he’s been solid at left guard. On the right side, redshirt freshman Cole Madison (RT) and sophomore Eduardo Middleton (RG) have been learning on the job.
Washington State Defense
Third-year defensive coordinator Mike Breske was expecting a fairly seasoned front seven to help a secondary that started the season without much game experience. So when you see that the Cougs are ranked ninth in the conference (and 110th nationally) in pass defense, allowing 282.4 yards per game while only coming up with two interceptions in the season’s first eight games, it’s not a huge shock. Across the board, though, Wazzu has struggled, ranking eighth in the Pac-12 in rush defense, ninth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense, allowing 38 points per game. Washington State also has struggled to mount a consistent pass rush, notching just two sacks per game, and has forced just six turnovers overall.
Up front in the Cougars’ 3-4 set, the trio of junior tackle Xavier Cooper, senior nose tackle Kalafitoni Pole and end Destiny Vaeao – all returning starters – has seen the bulk of the time. This trio is probably the strength of the WSU defense, but they’ve not grown as much as expected. Cooper leads the trio with 26 tackles, six for loss, and three sacks. Junior tackle Darryl Paulo is probably the best of those who rotate in the two-deep – he’s started three games and has two sacks among 11 stops.
Leach and staff are not afraid to make quick changes if they believe their getting diminishing returns at any position. Example No. 1: junior Darryl Monroe leads Washington State in tackles from his middle linebacker spot with 59. He has 1.5 sacks as well, but only three total tackles for loss as he’s more of a stay-at-home type. Redshirt freshman Peyton Pelleur (18 tackles) started in his place a week ago and is atop the depth chart this week, though the duo split reps against Arizona. Senior Cyrus Coen (41 tackles) mans the strong side, while juniors Jeremiah Allison (51 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) and Tana Pritchard (22 tackles, one INT) both see time on the weak side. At the rush LB spot, junior Kache Palacio has 37 tackles and 2.5 sacks, while classmate Ivan McClennan leads the Cougs with 3.5 sacks in part-time duty.
There’s been plenty of mixing and matching in the young secondary – but not a lot of answers. Only sophomore corner Daquan Brown (57 tackles, good for second on the team) has started all eight. He has nine pass breakups, but no picks. At the other corner, freshman Pat Porter made his first career start last Saturday in place of redshirt freshman Charleston White. White has the Cougs’ only other INT this season, but he’s struggled at times. At the safety spots, junior Taylor Taliulu (44 tackles) spent much of the season starting at free safety, but has transitioned to the top of the strong safety depth chart this week, while redshirt freshman Darius Lemora, who’s started six at strong safety (41 stops) is listed as the No. 1 free safety. Freshman Sulaiman Hameed will also see duty here.
Washington State Special Teams
Junior Quentin Breshears handles the placekicking duties, making six-of-eight field goals (with a long of 46) and 30-of-31 PATs. Redshirt freshman Erik Powell handles kickoffs, but has struggled. With only eight touchbacks in 46 tries, WSU ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in kickoff return yards allowed and dead last in net kickoff coverage. Freshman punter Jordan Dascalo has averaged 42.8 yards on 32 punts, but again Wazzu’s coverage teams have struggled, as opponents are averaging more than 17 yards per return, and the Cougs’ net punting (32.3) ranks last in the conference. Galvin’s been decent as a punt returner, averaging 9.5 yards, while Morrow is the top kick returner, averaging 23.5 yards.
USC Offensive Gameplan
Should USC find a way to end the 2014 regular season with wins in its final four games – yet miss the Pac-12 championship game – the Trojans’ offensive brain trust likely will rue the third quarter in Salt Lake City. Holding a 14-10 lead coming out of halftime – and with a first-half gameplan that was well conceived and aggressive – the Trojans went conservative when their defense gave them four chances to take a two-score lead. A two-score lead – with how USC’s defense was playing and the general pace – would have been massive.
Instead, Utah jumped into the lead by the end of the third quarter, turning a rare Cody Kessler interception into a 24-yard Devontae Booker TD run – setting the stage for more late-game heroics from a USC opponent. Even with the baffling third quarter, the Trojans appeared to have the game in hand with a four-point lead and a late five-minute march deep into Ute territory. But USC’s failure to gain two yards on two plays gave Utah the only opportunity it needed to seize the victory.
The matchup with the Cougar defense should provide the Trojan offense with a shot in the arm. The question marks in the Cougar secondary are startling. Kessler and Nelson Agholor, who had a career-high 10 receptions at Utah, could have a field day – if the weather permits (the forecast calls for highs in the 40s with a 60-percent chance of rain). But don’t sleep on the rushing attack. Though Washington State’s front seven is its “strength,” only two teams have failed to run for at least 157 yards against the Cougs. Good weather or bad, Javorius “Buck” Allen should find plenty of room for yet another 100-yard day, even with injuries wreaking havoc to the USC front five. Look for the Trojans to simplify things in protection and run blocking schemes with all of those moving parts.
USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense allowed just 331 total yards at Utah and forced a pair of crucial turnovers inside the five-yard line that foiled Ute scoring chances. They contained Booker and held Wilson to under a 60-percent completion percentage. But when the Trojan offense took a third-quarter powder and then was unable to convert what would have been a game-clinching first down, USC defenders’ errors allowed a couple of big runs by Wilson to lead to Utah’s game-winning score. Su’a Cravens and Anthony Sarao were both awesome, but the loss of J.R. Tavai was a crucial factor in Utah’s late success.
Faced with Tavai’s absence for at least a couple weeks, USC will need more heady play from Scott Felix at outside linebacker. If Felix continues to struggle with containment, don’t be shocked to see Charles Burks and/or Quinton Powell get a quick look. Safety Gerald Bowman’s return is crucial, as well, with the Trojans needing as many healthy defensive backs as possible against the Cougars’ air-it-out attack.
Can the USC front four hassle Halliday enough? With WSU’s offense designed to get the ball out quickly, it could be tough. But the Cougars have allowed 20 sacks – so it’s not impossible. Expect some varied looks for Halliday – both up front and in the secondary. Sarkisian has preached patience to the secondary this week, knowing that WSU will likely throw the ball 65-70 times, and it will be impossible to make a play every time. The effort will be to try to mix up coverages and pressure packages to avoid the big play, to confuse Halliday, and to force him into mistakes or to check down more often than he wants.
That the final long road trip of the season is the one to Pullman, the conference’s most remote outpost, is a concern. And with a 2-6 Cougar team awaiting a Trojan team that’s on a big dip in the emotional roller coaster it’s been riding for much of the season, the fear that USC simply will not show up Saturday isn’t wholly unfounded.
Watching Arizona march out to 31-0 and 52-17 leads on the Palouse last week, my reaction was, “Great, now we’re going to see an embarrassed, extra-motivated WSU team that has nothing to lose.” Washington State’s defense may be as bad as it looked against Arizona, but it’s offense is nothing to take lightly – and Leach would love nothing more than a statement win to begin to salvage what’s left of 2014. (If you’re thinking beating USC isn’t a “statement win” anymore, watch Utah fans’ reaction to last week’s win over a team the Utes were ranked higher than.)
The Trojans would be well advised to arrive ready to roll. The Cougars’ motivation will be thin. If Washington State gets off to a hot start, it’s likely they’ll be tough for most of the afternoon. However, Wazzu hasn’t been a great team at the start of the game (or the second half) while USC’s been great in the first quarter. If the Trojans can overcome last week’s crushing loss and get off to a hot start of their own, they are likely to roll to a fairly convincing win. If not … look out.
USC 42, Washington State 27
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).