WSU in Week 2: Sizing up a different USC

MUCH OF the preseason talk for the Cougs centers around Auburn but there are those who believe WSU's best chance for an early major upset might instead come in Week 2 – against Southern Cal. The rationale for that cautious optimism centers most around one thing…

The Trojan secondary.

USC lost three starters in the secondary from 2012 -- three of the team's top 10 tacklers. And the one starter returning, CB Torin Harris, drew a good amount of media and fan criticism last season. Post-spring, Harris was a virtual lock to start, calling into question the '13 depth chart at corner, and in the defensive backfield in general.

Josh Shaw could again line up at corner or move back to safety this season. Dion Bailey is moving to safety from linebacker, but he missed all of spring ball, coming off shoulder surgery.

As if that's not cloudy enough when it comes to the "Back 40", the Trojans are heavily counting on two true freshmen -- Leon McQuay III and Su'a Cravens -- to play right away and possibly start.

Both enrolled in January and both are natural safeties, but USC is thinking about playing McQuay at corner. Cravens' spring session was cut short, when he was shut down after a torn meniscus. (USC was beat up this spring, at one point there were 22 players who either did not practice or were unable to finish the practice due to injury.)

The corners were burned during USC's spring game to the tune of six TD passes. But they're going to press, regardless, says Pendergast. They're going to bump and be physical. (And they'll probably do it downfield and hope any flags will be worth it in the long run.) A big, strong, physical receiver like Kristoff Williams or newcomer Vince Mayle could find a lot of success here.

BUT A STRONG pass rush and solid drop-back coverage in the flat by linebackers can mask a lot of imperfections in the defensive backfield.

And USC has a new defense and defensive coordinator for 2013. Gone will be the typical Trojan 4-3 defense, with former Cal DC Clancy Pendergast implementing a new scheme which has been variously described as a "52", a 5-2-4 defense, a 5-2/3-4, a 3-4 concept defense, etc.

But in general terms, picture a 3-4 with two additional outside linebackers/standup rush ends on the line. And in rotation, USC can go big or small there, depending on down and distance. And the "52" is designed to stop the spread.

Pendergast's first two seasons at Cal were noteworthy, and the Bears led the conference in total defense both years. But last year things fell apart, and Cal dropped to No. 10 in the Pac-12 in that category.

Pendergast says the standup rush ends will rush more than they drop back in coverage. Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard are the two most likely starters there. Breslin, who had been playing with his hand down, will still have to learn how to effectively drop into coverage. It will be Kennard's third position, having played DE and MIK previously.

Still, USC should be relatively solid in the front seven. They're expected to be aggressive and to place a decided emphasis on rushing the passer. WSU will have to protect well enough to allow the QB and WRs time to stress the soft spots. If WSU can't handle the rush, expect to see USC bring even more pressure and not worry about putting their cover men on islands.

But if WSU can provide protection, not even stellar but merely an adequate level, the WSU aerial attack could really take flight in the Coliseum.

WHAT ABOUT THE Southern Cal offense? There are plenty of questions there, too.

The bad news for CougFans is that USC's o-line should be pretty good. They lose only one starter and should have a solid run game, even if they don't have an elite running back. True, replacing C Khaled Holmes is a tall order. But with everyone else back, they should be able to overcome it.

USC isn't going to do anything exotic on offense – they're going to emphasize a power running attack and when defenses start to cheat, they're going to go play-action.

But here's where the questions pop up.

Senior RB Silas Redd, while good in 2012, wasn't the first team all-conference back Trojan fans were hoping for after his transfer from Penn State. He also tore his meniscus and missed much of the spring, (both he and Cravens are expected to be 100 percent by fall camp.)


The 2013 Cougars, who open at Auburn and then head to USC, aren't the first WSU team to start the season with daunting back-to-back road trips. Here are four others that opened with an especially formidable double-whammy. Interestingly, two of the four – the 1965 and 1977 clubs – came through the gauntlet undefeated.
Of note on the 1967 team is that after going to USC (which won the national title that year) and Oklahoma, the Cougs returned to Pullman for the home opener against fourth-ranked UCLA and eventual Heisman winner Gary Beban.

  • 1963:
    Texas Tech 16, WSU 7
    WSU 14, Iowa 14

  • 1965:
    WSU 7, Iowa 0
    WSU 14, Minnesota 13

  • 1967:
    USC 49, WSU 0
    Oklahoma 21, WSU 0

  • 1977:
    WSU 19, Nebraska 10
    WSU 23, Michigan State 21

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  • USC is hoping either Justin Davis or Ty Isaac, two true freshmen, will be of starter-type quality right at the jump. Davis got a lot of praise this spring although he's an all-around type of running back, who doesn't dazzle you with blazing speed or power.

    WHEN USC GOES to the air, it's expected to again be the Marquise Lee show, (191 receptions, 2,864 yards, 25 TDs in two seasons.) Lee is going to get the yards and catches, but he may find it more difficult than before.

    Gone is fellow WR Robert Woods, and USC doesn't look to have someone at the ready who can draw the defensive attention Woods did in helping to open things up for Lee.

    Nelson Agholor is likely to fill the No. 2 role -- some think he is ready to explode and take the next step, but others see that as wishful thinking and tabbing as Agholor as good, but not elite. The third wideout is expected to be fifth-year senior De'Von Flournoy. He has one career catch.

    Victor Blackwell is also in the mix after a good spring. (USC took a big hit in the receiving game when George Farmer tore his ACL and MCL this offseason.)

    The key to defending Lee is negating his burst and long-ball speed. His success has been primarily due to his quicks, and not as much to technique, adjustments or intangibles. Easier said than done, but at least WSU knows what they'll need to do with Lee.

    ONE LAST THING on the USC offense, oh by the way. Southern Cal is of course replacing their quarterback, with Matt Barkley now in the NFL.

    It's almost certainly going to be Cody Kessler or Max Wittek as USC's starter, with incoming freshman Max Browne likely fitted for a redshirt.

    Kessler is the frontrunner post-spring ball. He has thrown two passes in his collegiate career. When playing for the injured Barkley last season, Wittek was mostly average -- but the Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech was horrendous (15-of-38 for 108 yards).

    The lack of experience/success is the major storyline at the position. But the USC quarterback doesn't have to be great, the Trojans can still win games on offense with their power run game plus some receivers who can go out and make plays. But it is just one more thing, one more "if/or" that USC has on their ledger for when they face the Cougs.

    THE FINAL TOPIC to cover has to do with coaching and mental makeup. Apart from all the on-field reasons to think WSU might be due for a rare upset against the Trojans, this might be just as, if not more, compelling an argument.

    Head man Lane Kiffin has been mostly used as a media pinata this offseason (nothing new there) and his missteps over his soon-to-be four years at USC, including lying to the press, cutting short an interview session after innocuous questions and beyond, have further hurt his cause. His play calling has regularly been suspect and second-guessed, as have his coaching skills in general.

    The Trojans were neither disciplined nor a strong team mentally last year, going from 6-1 to 7-6. Frustrations grew and fractures spread, with the USC locker room after the Sun Bowl disintegrating into what an unnamed player called "chaos," with the freshmen challenging the upperclassmen on their lack of leadership and effort. An "altercation" or a "brawl" ensued, depending on what report you read.

    What that all boils down to is if WSU, or anyone else this season, comes out and punches USC in the mouth, the 2013 vintage with 15 returning starters might be more susceptible to losing the mental battle earlier -- earlier in games and earlier in the season.

    And if that happens, it's going to make the USC ugliness of 2012 look like a Bing Crosby Clambake.

    For an earlier CF.C preview on Auburn, CLICK HERE

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