Game 5: ‘If You Will Dare, I Will Dare’
The consensus No. 17 USC Trojans (3-1, 1-1 in the Pac-12) return home for a Thursday night matchup against the Washington Huskies (2-2, 0-1) on October 8 at 6 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. This is the 84th meeting between USC and UW, with the Trojans holding a 51-28-4 edge. The teams haven’t faced each other since 2012 – a 24-14 Trojan victory in Seattle – and this is the first meeting in Los Angeles since a 40-17 USC win in 2011.
The Trojans enjoyed their lone bye week of 2015 last weekend, resting after a decisive 42-14 win at Arizona State on Sept. 26. USC’s defense forced four Sun Devil turnovers, including a pair of crucial fumbles in the first half’s waning moments, turning a 21-0 lead into a 35-0 runaway at halftime. Cody Kessler threw for 375 yards and five touchdowns, while Adoree’ Jackson scored on an 80-yard reception – just one of a series of dazzling offensive plays for the sophomore. The Huskies also were off last Saturday after coughing up five crucial turnovers in a 30-24 home loss to California on Sept. 26. The Bears outgained Washington, 481-259, as freshman QB Jake Browning continued to learn some hard lessons on the job.
There is, of course, some sideline intrigue this week as USC Coach Steve Sarkisian (12-5 at USC; 46-34 career collegiate head coaching record) is in his second season at the helm of the Trojans after leading Washington from 2009-13. His replacement in Seattle, Chris Petersen (10-8 at UW, 102-20 in nine-plus seasons as a head coach overall) was the target of many rumors during USC’s recent coaching searches while leading the Boise State program to unprecedented heights. Petersen, though, has seen his team undergo some serious turnover, especially after his first season – and the young Huskies could struggle to remain a factor in the Pac-12 North Division race in 2015.
Offensive coordinator (and former Oregon State quarterback) Jonathan Smith was one of six staffers who joined the UW staff directly from Boise State with Petersen. Smith was the quarterbacks coach in Boise in 2012-13 (and maintains that title at UW, as well), and also served a stint as an offensive coordinator at Montana. However, it’s unlikely he’s seen a challenge as strong as what he’s facing this year in Seattle, as youth and some key season and career ending injuries have left the Huskies battling inexperience in several key spots. Unsurprisingly, UW ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 in scoring offense (ninth, 29.4 points per game), total offense (11th, 356 yards per game), and rushing offense (11th, 107 yards per game). Browning, who set many California state records growing up in Folsom, was an early entrant at UW in January and became the first true freshman to start an opener in Husky football history. A true pocket passer, he’s shown some promise in completing 65 percent of his passes with five touchdowns. But Browning has also struggled to stay upright behind a young Husky line (UW has allowed 11 sacks) and has made some youthful mistakes, including four interceptions. Junior Jeff Lindquist has appeared in every game as a running threat from the QB spot, carrying the ball seven times without attempting a pass.
Senior Jaydon Mickens is the outspoken leader of the Husky receiving corps – and UW’s all-time No. 5 receiver (he’d move to No. 3 with five catches on Thursday night). After catching 60 passes in 2014, he’s grabbed 13 so far in 2015 (9.3 yards per catch). He’s joined on the outside by sophomores Brayden Lenius and Dante Pettis, each of whom has eight catches so far. Experienced depth at the receiver spots is an issue. During the spring, Washington lost John Ross to a knee injury. Ross was a big-time playmaker in a limited offensive role in 2014 (he was also playing at cornerback) who had shifted to receiver full time. However, the Dawgs are well stocked at tight end. Senior Joshua Perkins is averaging 12.8 yards on his 13 grabs, while junior Darrell Daniels is averaging 15 yards on his seven catches.
UW’s leading receiver, though, is junior tailback Dwayne Washington, whose versatility has been one of the Huskies’ biggest threats so far in 2015. He’s avoided the injury bug – notable due to his past history – and has 17 receptions, averaging 13.1 yards per grab, with two scores. He’s also averaging 5.1 yards on 27 carries, with three scores The Huskies were using him mostly as a pass catcher (he’ll line up all over the field) before a 10-carry, 109-yard rushing performance against Cal. True freshman Myles Gaskin leads the Huskies in carries (39) and rushing yards (209), but after solid performances against Sacramento State and Utah State, he was a bit of an afterthought in UW’s loss to the Bears.
Up front, the Huskies’ youth movement (UW has 52 true or redshirt freshmen vs. just 13 seniors on its roster) has led to some early-season shifting. UW’s only returning starter, left guard Dexter Charles, was forced to retire from football during fall camp due to lingering knee issues. Sophomore Coleman Shelton (who started seven times at right tackle in 2014) started the first two games of 2015 at left tackle, before shifting to left guard, replacing junior Jake Eldrenkamp, and opening up the tackle spot for true freshman Trey Adams. Senior Siosifa Tufunga is the group’s rock at center. On the right side, redshirt freshman Jesse Sosebee appears to have seized the guard spot from junior Shane Brostek, while redshirt freshmen Kaleb McGary and Matt James have split four starts at tackle – though McGary appears to have the upper hand at the moment.
Pete Kwiatkowski has been Petersen’s defensive coordinator for the past six seasons (four at Boise and two at UW) and has been a member of his staff for the past 10. With graduation and turnover after 2014, the Huskies have fully shifted to Kwiatkowski’s preferred 3-4 look and, though they faced the challenge of replacing six starters in their front seven, the results have been solid thus far. Washington leads the Pac-12 in total defense (allowing just 321 yards per game), rushing defense (104.5 yards per game), and scoring defense (15.8 points per game).
Up front, junior Joe Mathis counts 3.5 tackles for loss among his 16 stops from the defensive end spot. He’s been joined by sophomore nose tackle Elijah Qualls (team-leading two sacks among 14 tackles) and senior defensive tackle Taniela Tupou (14 stops) in the starting group. This trio plays the bulk of the snaps, though redshirt freshmen Jaylen Johnson, Vita Vea, and Greg Gaines, and sophomore Will Dissly are also seeing time in an effort to build depth.
The linebacking corps had some huge shoes to fill with the losses of All-American Shaq Thompson and four-year starter John Timu, but – again – it’s been “so far, so good” for this unit. Senior outside linebackers Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton have taken on leadership roles. Feeney has 14 tackles and one sack from the BUCK spot, while Littleton has a team-leading 4.5 tackles for loss (two sacks) among his 22 stops. Sophomores Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria were plugged into the inside spots, and they’ve impressed. Victor leads UW with 38 tackles (3.5 for loss), and Bierria is second with 28. Junior Psalm Wooching provides some depth on the outside, while senior Scott Lawyer does the same inside.
UW did return an outstanding core in the secondary in 2015, led by sophomore free safety Budda Baker, junior cornerback Kevin King (a former safety), and sophomore corner Sidney Jones. Baker (six tackles) suffered an ankle injury against Utah State and missed the Cal game – he remains questionable for Thursday night, which would be a huge loss. Junior Brandon Beaver (nine tackles, plus a 96-yard interception return against Utah State) would take his place, across from senior strong safety Brian Clay (11 tackles). King has a team-leading three interceptions and Jones leads the team with four pass break-ups. Sophomore Darren Gardenhire (16 tackles, one INT) has been solid as the nickelback.
Washington Special Teams
Junior Cameron Van Winkle has built on a solid 2014, making four-of-five field goal attempts (his only miss was from 46 yards) and all 14 PATs. Sophomore Tristan Vizcanio handles the kickoffs, with 12 touchbacks in 22 attempts, and also scored a touchdown on a fake field goal against Utah State. Senior punter Korey Durkee is averaging 41.1 yards per punt, with four boots of 50-plus yards among 15 total attempts. Only two of his punts have been returned – for one total yard. Pettis is the Huskies punt returner – and he’s dangerous. His 76-yard touchdown against Boise State was the second punt return TD of his career. With Baker questionable, freshman receiver Chico McClatcher is the top kickoff return man (24.8 yards per on four returns).
USC Offensive Game Plan
As noted in my preview, Kessler and the Trojans came out slinging it against Arizona State, even though the Devils’ defensive numbers coming into the contest were outstanding against the pass. ASU simply hadn’t seen the kind of passing attack USC brought to Tempe and it showed, as Kessler found Jackson, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Steven Mitchell for a number of big plays that helped the Trojans roll to a 35-point halftime lead.
Many were concerned with the Trojans’ struggles running the football against Arizona State’s aggressive, attacking front seven – but after the Sun Devils decimation of UCLA’s rushing attack last Saturday, you have to give at least some credit to ASU’s effort. With just 76 net rushing yards in Tempe, though, USC does need to tighten up its offensive line play heading into this next stretch of the schedule.
Though the Washington defense isn’t quite as aggressively designed as Arizona State’s, the Huskies are averaging better than seven tackles for loss per game and have held the three FBS teams on their schedule to an average of just three yards per carry. Washington has also held those squads to an inefficient 57.4-percent pass completion percentage. Though the Huskies are young, they’ve played rather well on defense thus far. How will USC attack? Expect the Trojans – again – to look to make early plays through the air, perhaps unleashing Jackson even more extensively this week. Two things have become increasingly clear in the season’s first month: offensive coordinator Clay Helton trusts Kessler completely, and USC wants to establish its passing attack first against nearly every opponent.
USC Defensive Game Plan
After an embarrassing performance against Stanford, the Trojan defense needed something to hang its hat on in Tempe. That something turned out to be takeaways – USC forced four Sun Devil turnovers in the first half, none bigger than the two in the second quarter’s final moments. Delvon Simmons’ forced fumble on an Arizona State first-and-goal play was returned 94 yards for a touchdown by Chris Hawkins, and Quinton Powell then forced a fumble on the following kickoff, setting up a Kessler-to-Smith-Schuster scoring pass.
There are still some concerns about USC’s rushing defense after the Sun Devils gashed the Trojans for 182 yards on the ground (and 454 overall). Time and again, especially early in the game, ASU’s running backs seemed to have massive holes to run through. The Trojans will obviously need to shore up that rushing defense with the likes of Notre Dame, Utah, and others still to come on an increasingly difficult schedule.
This week, though, expect USC to get after Browning early and often. The Huskies have struggled to run the football with any consistency thus far, adding to Browning’s degree of difficulty in adjusting from facing high school to college defenses. The freshman does have some ability, but he’s prone to making those youthful mistakes (see his ill-advised interception that killed the Huskies last chance to upend Cal) as well as holding on to the ball a bit too long (Washington has allowed 11 sacks). With UW’s inexperienced offensive line in front of him, the mix seems just right for the Trojans to unleash more of an attacking scheme than they’ve shown for most of the 2015 campaign.
Ah, the excitement of a nationally televised Thursday night game! Right?! Wrong. The Pac-12’s continuing effort to force weeknight football games down the throats of its member schools and their fans is one thing if the game is taking place in Tucson or Eugene. It’s something else completely in the rush hour traffic of the nation’s second-largest city on the worst traffic day of the week. Now, I’m not going to go all Jim Mora here about Thursday games (“Hey, we just got crushed on our home field, but what’s up with these unfair Thursday night games!?!?!”) but it’s pretty clear in this, the third consecutive season with a Thursday night home game, that USC’s fan base sees them as a much bigger hassle than anything else.
Now that that mini-rant is out of the way, what about the game itself? The long-awaited Sark vs. Petersen showdown will be topic Nos. 1, 2, and 3 on ESPN’s broadcast, I’m sure. But it certainly seems that USC holds the upper hand on Washington going into this particular game. That’s not to judge either school’s transition under their coaches, or to say that Washington won’t eventually make a full transition to high-level success in the coming years. But, in this one, talent and experience favor the Trojans.
The Huskies’ offense doesn’t appear to be ready to challenge USC’s defense. On the other side, things could be more interesting. However, UW’s solid defense will have to come up with some big plays and key turnovers for the Huskies to make a game of this in the second half.
USC 38, Washington 17
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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)