Critics called out USC coach Lane Kiffen for not playing physical enough last season, so he instituted a lot more full contact practices this offseason. The results were costly.
Numerous players went down in the preseason with injuries both minor and major. At one point this fall, USC was down to two scholarship running backs and two scholarship receivers. But the big injury issue for USC against WSU is their lack of proven cornerbacks.
| Cougars (0-1) vs Trojans (1-0)|
AT A GLANCE
7:30 pm Pacific Time
Players to Know
Marqise Lee, WR: The reigning Biletnikoff award winner got his shoulder a little dinged up in fall camp but is at full speed now. Lee is unlikely to match his ridiculous production from last year: 118 receptions, 1721 yards, and 18 touchdowns. He doesn't have Matt Barkley throwing to him and he doesn't have Robert Woods drawing coverage away. But Lee should still be among the national leaders in receiving. He had two bad drops but still managed 104 yards last week.
Silas Redd, Tre Madden and Justin Davis, RBs: Redd suffered a meniscus tear in the preseason and missed the Hawaii game. He's claims he is going to play but that might be more smoke screen than reality. He recently underwent minor surgery. The Penn State transfer had 905 rushing yards (5.4 avg) and 10 total touchdowns last year.
Tre Madden and Justin Davis are expected to carry the load in his absence. Madden ran for 109 yards against Hawaii last week. Whomever starts will run behind a strong run-blocking line that returns four starters from last year, but who looked suspect in pass protection against Hawaii.
Cody Kessler & Max Wittek, QBs: Quarterback was USC most unsettled position heading into this season and it remains so after Week 1. Kiffin says he can run his full offense with both players and will use both of them throughout the season, but Kessler will again get the start this week according to multiple media reports. He completed 52 percent of his passes for 95 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a little over two quarters of work against Hawaii.
USC strives for a balanced, pro-style offense. When Matt Barkley was under center, the passing game could put up big numbers, but everything fell apart when they had to turn to Wittek. As good as the Trojans are at some spots, much of this team's season hinges on the quarterback and neither has shown enough positives to this point.
Breske's defense is all about attack and this is the game to raise the stakes on. Make life difficult for the quarterback by taking away the running game and making the QBs prove their worth. Lee is going to get his yards, but the Cougs cannot allow him to run wild after the catch. The question facing the Cougs is if they use more brackets on him or do they try to send more men on the pass rush. The way things could unfold here is for the Cougs to see how effective their pass rush is out of the base first and then turn to more blitzes if needed.
THE TROJANS ON DEFENSE
Players to Know
Leonard Williams and George Uko, DEs: With a nose tackle under center this season as USC switches to a 52-type defense, the Trojans expect to draw a lot fewer double teams on their outstanding defensive ends. Each of them had two sacks against Hawaii and the Trojans generated seven in total on the day.
Morgan Breslin and Devin Kennard, Hybrid Ends: These spots are expected to produce a lot of big plays. Though they line up on the line of scrimmage, these players play upright and keep the run game contained as well as pressure the quarterback. Breslin led the team with 13 sacks last year, but missed the season opener with an injury. His status this week is questionable.
The defensive front seven looks strong – USC had seven sacks last week against Hawaii. Kiffin overhauled most of his staff in the off-season but the biggest changes came on D. Most surprising was the decision to part ways with his dad Monte, his defensive coordinator. He brought in Cal's Clancy Pendergast –his defense features two hybrid linebacker-ends designed to disguise and provide versatility against spread offenses and zone option running attacks. The interior linemen look dominant and the two middle linebackers are largely left in zone support of them. But occasionally the linebackers will draw responsibility of the slot receivers, a sign of which will be the safety moving up to fill the linebacker's role. This group played with the kind of swagger against Hawaii that USC has not seen in a while. They could be dominant in many of their games.
The linebackers, hybrids, and safeties are involved in a variety of different looks and responsibilities, but the corners are almost always left in man coverage. This is the area of concern for the Trojans. Corner is the thinnest position and outside receiver is WSU's strongest. Expect Halliday to look early and often to the outside. The key will be reading the blitzes and safety coverages correctly, and for the offensive line to slow down a strong pass rush from the d-line. The Cougs will need to get rid of the ball quickly and move the action away from USC's seven man front. This will likely be the strongest group of pass rushers the WSU line will face all season. Stretch the field and move to the greenest grass.
THE TROJANS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Both kicking specialists look solid and Lee offers his impressive speed to USC's return game. WSU gave up a kickoff return last week and lost by a touchdown. They cannot do allow another special teams gaffe.
-USC still has the most talented roster on the conference, but sanctions have severely reduced this team's depth. They were also a very fractured team by the end of last season, with a locker room fracas after a Sun Bowl loss. The offseason has given them a chance to recover, but injuries are already proving problematic and they didn't look like a team with strong camaraderie in the opener.
-The Trojans may have lost the air of invincibility but they are still arguably the most talented team in the conference. USC was actually a lot better than their 7-6 record last season indicates. All the losses were close and all were to bowl qualifying teams. Nonetheless, this team seems to lose all confidence if it isn't blowing out its opponent. The longer WSU hangs around, the more mistakes USC could make.
-This will be a major test for Connor Halliday. The Trojan defense is deceptive, aggressive and full of playmakers. They had four interceptions against Hawaii -- with pressure being the primary culprit -- and looked like they could have won with defense and special teams alone.
-A quick count shows 24 different Cougs hail from the LA area -- Wazzu last faced the Trojans in 2010 and last played the Trojans in LA in 2009. Very few Cougars have played USC before. Listening to the players this week, they were absolutely chomping at the bit to take on USC. The effort should be there, and then some.