Ahead of schedule, Chris Petersen’s Huskies have become a national championship contender – thanks, in part, to their first-quarter dominance. The Trojans must avoid early mistakes to keep their five-game winning streak alive.
The USC Trojans (6-3, 5-2 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 20 by the College Football Playoff committee, visit the consensus No. 4 Washington Huskies (9-0, 6-0) on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 4:30 p.m. PDT in Seattle’s Husky Stadium and in front of a national FOX television audience. This is the 85th meeting in a series that USC leads 51-29-4. However, Washington has won three of the past five, including last season’s 17-12 stunner in the Coliseum in what would become Steve Sarkisian’s final game as the Trojans’ head coach. USC won its most recent trip to Seattle, 24-14, in a 2012 contest played at CenturyLink Field while Husky Stadium was under renovation.
Last Saturday, Ronald Jones II tied the school’s single-game rushing touchdown record with four, leading the Trojans to a 45-20 win over visiting Oregon. Jones had 171 yards rushing, including a game breaking 66-yarder in the third quarter, while Sam Darnold threw for 309 yards and two scores. The USC defense continued to throttle top-notch offenses, holding Oregon to 288 total yards – its least since 2009 – and a season-low 20 points. Meanwhile, Husky quarterback Jake Browning tied his own school record with six TD passes as Washington buried California, 66-27, in Berkeley. The UW defense added to its impressive 2016 takeaway total by intercepting Bears QB Davis Webb three times.
USC Coach Clay Helton (12-7 in parts of three seasons) has seen his Trojans recover from a 1-3 start to win five consecutive games. Washington headman Chris Petersen (24-12 at UW, 116-24 in his 11th season as a head coach) remains close to the hearts of many USC fans who believe he should be coaching in L.A. rather than on the Puget Sound. After a pair of six-loss seasons, he’s turned the Huskies into an apparent powerhouse, featuring an aggressive and talented offense and a fast and opportunistic defense. Just three more wins separate Washington from the College Football Playoff.Washington Offense
Husky offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith is one of a bevy of Husky coaches who have been part of Petersen’s team dating to his days at Boise State. He also serves as quarterbacks coach, and he’s got to be thrilled with how last season’s youthful group of skill position players has flourished under his tutelage in 2016. Washington tops the Pac-12 in scoring (48.3 points per game, second nationally) and rushing (231 yards per game, No. 23 nationally). The Huskies are third in the conference in total offense (499.4 yards per game, 18th in the nation) and fourth in the Pac-12 in passing (268.4, 31st nationally). However, thanks to Browning, UW tops the nation in passing efficiency (205.7), as the sophomore is on track to break the national single-season passer rating record. He also leads the country in TD passes (34, against just three interceptions) and is No. 2 nationally in yards per passing attempt (10.3). While the Huskies have allowed 16 sacks, the sturdy Browning also has run for four TDs.
Junior John Ross has made quite an impact after missing 2015 with a knee injury. After last week’s monster performance at Cal (6 catches, 208 yards, three TDs), he leads the Huskies with 44 catches for 742 yards and 14 TDs. That TD number ranks second nationally – and he’s also a threat to take a handoff, averaging 14.3 yards on five totes, with another touchdown. Classmate Dante Pettis has been nearly as impressive, averaging 15.5 yards on 37 grabs, with 11 TDs. He had eight catches for 104 and three scores of his own last weekend. Diminutive sophomore Chico McClatcher is third on the team with 18 catches – four for touchdowns – but averages 19.8 yards per. He’s another dual threat, rushing 13 times for an average of 7.5 yards. True freshman Aaron Fuller is the only other wideout to reach the 10-catch plateau. Senior Darrell Daniels is the top pass catcher (14 grabs, 17.1 average, two TDs) among a four tight ends who see time.
Sophomore Myles Gaskin has seized the feature tailback role, averaging 6.3 yards per carry to total 952 yards and eight scores. He’s also caught 10 passes out of the backfield, including another TD. He’s the driver behind the Dawgs top-notch run game, but don’t discount physical junior Lavon Coleman or fleet-footed sophomore Jomon Dotson. Coleman is averaging 9.1 yards on 66 totes (three TDs, including a 49-yarder at Cal), while Dotson is averaging 4.6 yards in 55 carries (one score).
Junior center Coleman Shelton, a two-year starter and honors candidate, anchors the Huskies’ front five. Both tackles – sophomores Trey Adams on the left side and Kaleb McGary on the right – have started all nine this season after each starting at least six games a season ago. Senior Shane Brostek and junior Andrew Kirkland (who’s also capable at tackle) rotated at right guard. The lone injury issue for the group faces senior left guard Jake Eldrenkamp, perhaps the line’s best player. He has missed the past two games. If he’s unavailable on Saturday, expect true freshman Nick Harris to make his third consecutive start.Washington Defense
This is Pete Kwiatkowski’s seventh season as Petersen’s defensive coordinator, and this may be the best unit he’s fielded in that time. Though the Huskies nominally play out of a 4-3 – at least according to the depth chart – they’ve actually started eight of their nine games in the nickel, often showing more of a 3-3-5 look. When they’re in a more traditional set, one end plays more of a hybrid linebacker role. Washington leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense (17 points per game, No. 11 nationally) and is second in total defense (329.8 yards per game, 18th nationally) and pass defense (181.9 yards allowed, 13th nationally). The one (minor) chink in the armor: the Huskies have been average against the run, allowing 147.9 yards per game (sixth in the Pac-12, No. 43 nationally) – including allowing more than 200 yards in three of their past six. However, they more than make up for that with havoc plays: UW ranks third in the nation in both fumble recoveries (12, tops in the Pac-12) and turnovers forced (22, second in the conference); second in the conference and 13th nationally with 27 sacks; and third in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (55). The Huskies’ turnover margin (+1.67 per game) leads the nation and – get this – of the seven times that Washington’s offense has committed a turnover, UW’s defense has gone right back out and gained a takeaway five times.
Washington’s biggest injury – they’ve been a relatively healthy bunch – was losing senior Joe Mathis to a foot injury after the Oregon game. After missing the past three, Petersen announced that he’s out for the rest of the season this week. Mathis was perfect for that hybrid end/linebacker spot – he’s still the team leader with five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Junior Connor O’Brien (23 tackles, 5.5 for loss, a pick-six against Idaho) has taken over, with redshirt freshman Benning Potoa’e (14 stops) seeing more time of late. Junior nose tackle Elijah Qualls (24 tackles, four for loss) mans the inside with sophomore defensive tackle Greg Gaines (23 stops, 7.5 for loss, three sacks). Massive sophomore Vita Vea, who plays both end and tackle, has 29 tackles and 3.5 sacks among his 4.5 TFL.
The Husky linebackers have been all over the field this season. Junior inside backers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria and senior outsider Psalm Wooching have started all nine (though Victor and Wooching both got nicked up at Cal, they’re expected to be full speed on Saturday). Victor leads the Huskies with 68 tackles (three for loss). Bierria is second with 46 (one sack) but leads the nation with five fumble recoveries. Wooching is second on the team in sacks (4.5). Sophomores Ben Burr-Kirven (25 stops, one interception) and Tevis Bartlett (14 tackles, three for loss), and redshirt freshman D.J. Beavers (15 stops) provide depth.
The biggest strength of the UW defense, though, is its outstanding secondary. The same quartet has started all nine: junior free safety Budda Baker (40 tackles, 3.5 TFL, one INT); sophomore strong safety Jojo McIntosh (42 stops, two forced fumbles); senior cornerback Kevin King (25 tackles, nine pass breakups, one INT); and standout junior corner Sidney Jones (24 tackles, team-leading three interceptions). Jones – who is likely to match up on JuJu Smith-Schuster – had only been thrown at 17 times by opposing quarterbacks in the Huskies’ first eight games (ProFootballFocus.com). Then, last week, while handling Cal standout Chad Hansen, he saw 13 targets. He held Hansen to four catches, while intercepting two passes. True freshman Taylor Rapp (29 tackles) has impressed at the nickel spot.Washington Special Teams
Senior Cameron Van Winkle has made eight-of-11 field goals (all three misses were from 40 yards or longer) and 57-of-58 PATs. Junior Tristan Vizcaino continues to handle the kickoffs (29 touchbacks in 71 boots, but UW’s 16.7 kickoff return yards against average leads the conference) while adding punting duties this season (39.9 yards per on 29 boots). Expect him to use pooch kickoffs often on Saturday after doing so against Cal’s dangerous return team last week. When the Trojans kick it away, though, danger lurks in the persons of Ross and Pettis. Ross has four career kickoff returns for touchdowns, including a 92-yarder against Rutgers this season (he’s averaging 30.6 per on seven returns). Pettis has two return TDs this season (including a 58-yard game winner at Utah) among five career punt returns for touchdowns.USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojans kept on rolling against Oregon last week, notching a fifth-consecutive 500-plus-yard performance. With great balance (270 rushing, 309 passing), outstanding third-down effectiveness (USC was nine-of-14; its converted better than 56 percent of its third down opportunities in the past four games), and only one turnover, there’s not much to complain about. Sure, Smith-Schuster had only two catches against constant bracket coverage, but Deontay Burnett (seven catches, 87 yards, TD) and USC’s tight ends continued to step up.
With 394 yards rushing in the past two games, Jones has cemented his spot as the Trojans’ go-to tailback – for now. However, the expected return of Justin Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware should help keep him fresh, while giving USC some different looks against UW’s pressure-focused front. Though Darnold’s been sacked just three times since becoming the starter – and though the Huskies have only had three sacks in their past three games – there’s no doubt that one of UW’s big goals will be to bring as much pressure as possible.
While the Trojan offense is on a heater, the Huskies present a much different challenge than recent sieves Arizona, Cal, and Oregon. It’s a fast, athletic group of ball hawks that thrives on third down. Washington leads the conference in third-down defense (eighth nationally), allowing conversions just 29.6 percent of the time. Also, the Huskies allow just 4.6 yards per play. Since Darnold took over, USC is averaging an impressive 7.5 yards per play. To lessen UW’s effectiveness, USC must have success going at the Huskies’ lone issue – run defense. If Jones, Davis, and the crew can keep the Trojans in third-and-manageable, Darnold’s playmaking ability becomes a factor, challenging UW in a way it hasn’t been this season.USC Defensive Gameplan
While much talk during the Trojans’ winning streak has centered on their red-hot offense, the USC defense has – perhaps – been more impressive. Holding one hot offense after another below their season averages and salvaging Troy’s Oct. 8 victory over Colorado after a bevy of Trojan turnovers, the defense might have played its best game of the year last week. Oregon arrived averaging 519 total yards (248 rushing) and 40 points. They left the Coliseum with 288 total yards (85 rushing) and 20 points. The Trojans sacked Justin Herbert three times and forced UO to fail on 11-of-16 third-down opportunities.
Though USC has seen a run of statistically stellar offenses, it’s been some time since they’ve seen a well-balanced machine like the Huskies. Not only are the Dawgs dangerous and efficient both on the ground and through the air, they don’t turn it over (seven in nine games, No. 5 nationally) and they convert on third down (46.9 percent, second in the Pac-12). Unsurprisingly, they’ve also won the time of possession battle in five of six conference games. What wrinkle will Clancy Pendergast try to get the Huskies out of their rhythm?
The health of Stevie Tu’ikolovatu up front and Iman Marshall at corner will be something to keep an eye on. If Tu’ikolovatu struggles with his knee, JC transfer Josh Fatu and sophomore Jacob Daniel must step up against the Huskies rushing attack. Marshall seems to be good to go, which would allow Adoree’ Jackson to – possibly – focus his efforts on slowing Ross. USC must find a way to pressure Browning, forcing him to get rid of the ball earlier than he’d like. Tweak fronts and pressures to put a little confusion in the UW offense, stop the run, and pressure the quarterback – that’s the recipe for USC to slow the Huskies’ juggernaut.The Pick
In August, no one could have imagined that USC’s November would shape up as one national-stage game at Seattle, with three games against three also-rans surrounding it. Yet, here we are. The Huskies – who showed signs in late 2015 of becoming a force — have arrived, perhaps a season ahead of schedule. With an ugly 2015 win at USC already under Petersen’s belt, few things would chap a sector of the Trojans’ fan base more than another loss to Washington.
As we know, USC has struggled away from home – winning only at lowly Arizona. Meanwhile, UW’s closest result on the shores of Lake Washington was a 24-point win over Oregon State. A sellout crowd is expected to remind folks that – when the Huskies are good – there are few tougher places to play in the conference. If USC gets off on the wrong foot – penalties, turnovers, and early errors – a tsunami could be waiting for them – Washington has outscored opponents 128-20 in the first quarter this season.
For the Trojans to survive, they must play their cleanest game in some time, coming off back-to-back 13-penalty performances and against a team that’s forced the third-most turnovers in the country. There’s no doubt USC can hang with UW if it plays a clean game. All one has to do is watch the teams’ respective performances at Utah. The matchup is closer than those around the country might think. Expect the Trojans to do enough to keep this one close, but for a key error or two – they are clearly the more mistake-prone of these two teams – to hamper their efforts. With their home crowd behind them and an opportunity for postseason glory ahead, the Huskies should prevail.
Washington 31, USC 27
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)