The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. No. 25 Trojans

LESS THAN 72 HOURS ago, we couldn't wait for the college football season to start. Now, with little time to dissect what happened at Auburn, Washington State must turn its attention to the opening of Pacific-12 Conference play with a Saturday evening contest against No. 25 USC.

It's a brutal start to 2013, playing two consecutive road games against teams with recent national championships on the resume. The last time Washington State opened a season with two road games was 1988.

If only the Cougars could trade results: a 44-7 win over Illinois, and a 41-9 victory over Minnesota.

WSU generated enough positives from the 31-24 loss at Auburn on Saturday to believe there's hope in Los Angeles. This is far from an elite USC squad. The quarterback position is shaky, and the Trojans have serious depth issues. Southern California looks like it can play some defense, based on what it showed in beating Hawaii the other night.

You'd like to think the Cougars would present more problems for USC than the Rainbow Warriors, at least from a personnel standpoint. But a couple things stand out.

First, the fact the Cougars mustered just three points in the second half against Auburn. Pac-12 Networks Analyst Rick Neuheisel talked about this Saturday night, and it seems a good point: that even though WSU threw 65 passes, they had only seven or eight schemes, and eventually the opposing defense had a good idea of what was coming. Neuheisel says the Cougars must become more diverse. WSU averaged 5.2 yards on the ground against Auburn so maybe it makes sense to mix in a few more runs.

Cougs vs Trojans


The Kickoff:
WSU (0-1) at USC (1-0), 7:30 p.m. PT Saturday in Los Angeles Coliseum. Fox Sports 1 will televise

The Line:
USC is a 14 1/2-point favorite (the game opened at 21½ points!!).

The Rankings:
USC is ranked No. 25 in the writers' and coaches' polls. Most pre-season publications had the Cougars slotted nationally in the 60s.


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You'd also like to see the Cougars' run defense show some improvement in Week 2. WSU gave up 6.4 yards a carry against Auburn. Even if you throw out Corey Grant's 75-yard touchdown run, it's still almost 5 yards a carry.

USC showed against Hawaii that it could run the ball a little. Just think if the Cougars can slow down the Trojans' running game and force the quarterbacks to make plays with their arm. It's a must if Washington State is to win in Los Angeles.

About USC: No coach in the Pac-12 has waffled more about his quarterback situation than USC's Lane Kiffin, but what else is new about his slipshod decisions? Heading into the second game, it appears the Trojans still have a two-headed quarterback in Cody Kessler and Max Wittek. Kiffin on Monday he knows who will start but won't say; a source told the L.A. Times both will still play.

Kiffin didn't have much good to say about either quarterback following the Trojans 30-13 win over Hawaii, although he blamed nearly everyone for their performance, including himself.

The buzz has Kiffin wanting the 6-foot-1 Kessler to win the job, but he did little to separate himself from Wittek as the starter against Hawaii. Kessler played one series into the third quarter, completing 10 of 19 passes for 95 yards with a touchdown and a pick. Wittek, a 6-5 sophomore, hit 5 of 10 passes for 77 yards. Wittek's first two pass plays resulted in sacks.

On the flip side, with the sensational Marqise Lee, you don't have to be a great USC quarterback to look better than average. Lee is a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate, even with an average-looking 104-yard performance against Hawaii that included two drops. Lee dropped plenty of jaws during Pac-12 play last season, and he's likely to cause problems for the Cougars.

USC's top running back to date is sophomore Tre Martin, who had 109 yards in the 2013 opener. But it's hard to label Martin as the next great USC back with only one career game. The Trojans returned four starting offensive linemen in 2013, led by three-year right tackle Kevin Graf.

The Trojans' defense kept Hawaii out of the end zone until the final 30 seconds of the game. It's a different defense than a year ago, as Clancy Pendergast has replaced Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. USC plays a 5-2 front, although some might call it a 3-4 as two ends are really outside linebackers. Among the defensive standouts are linebackers Morgan Breslin and Hayes Pullard and defensive end Leonard Williams. The Pac-12's Freshman of the Year in 2012, Williams had two sacks against Hawaii.

The series: Hello, stranger. Because of the Pac-12's new alignment, the Cougars and Trojans haven't played since 2010, when USC pounded WSU 50-16 in Pullman. Washington State is looking to end an eight-game losing streak to USC. The Cougars last win over the Trojans was the fabulous 30-27 overtime win of 2002, a game recently picked as the most memorable since Cougfan.com was launched 15 years ago.

USC leads the 69-game series 57-8-4.

Familiar faces: The Trojans have four former Washington high schoolers on their roster, though none play a prominent, or even starting role. The most notable is freshman quarterback Max Browne from Skyline of Sammamish, the 2012 national Gatorade Player of the Year. Also from Washington are sophomore kicker Alex Wood (Mercer Island), sophomore offensive tackle Zach Banner (Lakes/Tacoma), and junior defensive end Michael Maguire (Sammamish/Golden West JC).

Statistically speaking: The Cougars converted on 7 of 17 third-down plays against Auburn. That adds up to a success rate of 41 percent. While hardly the stuff of a world beater, it's a dramatic improvement from what the Cougs converted in 2012 (32 percent). By way of comparison, Texas A&M was No. 1 in the nation last season at 54 percent and Oregon was No. 1 in the Pac-12 at 46 percent.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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