USC 101: Sark's road woes a boon to Cougs?

STEVE SARKISIAN HAS TAKEN over a talented but unpredictable team. On one hand, the Trojans are just 13 points away from being undefeated, but they are also just two short field goals away from 3-5. Though they are no longer under sanctions, depth remains a concern. Coug fans may be disheartened after last week's thrashing, but should bear in mind that Sarkisian is a famously bad road game coach.

Cougars (2-6) vs Trojans (5-3)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
1:30 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (32,952)

TELEVISION:
Networks

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
WSU is a 7 1/2 point underdog

LAST MEETING:
2013, WSU won 10-7

THE SERIES:
WSU trails 58-9-4

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 35, Trojans 34

THE TROJANS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Cody Kessler, QB: Kessler ranks ninth nationally in passing efficiency (20 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions). At 6-foot-1, he isn't the biggest quarterback in the conference, but has a very accurate arm.
Javorius Allen, RB: Allen is the Pac-12's leading rusher with 1,048 yards on the ground and is also USC's third leading receiver with 312 yards.
Nelson Agholor, WR: Agholor isn't quite living up to his All-America expectations, but he is still USC's most dangerous receiver. He has 643 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

Overview
USC runs a balanced, pro-style attack with borderline pro-level talent. Kessler made his first start against Washington State last season (throwing the pick-six that jump-started the upset) but he is much more polished now. This means the Trojans will be nowhere near the offensive catastrophe they were last year. The Cougars will likely need to win in track-meet fashion.

Strategy
Utah beat the Trojans last week by shutting down their running game and keeping the receivers in front of them. USC seems uncomfortable being one-dimensional. Unfortunately, WSU's secondary was nothing short of a disaster last week. Even if the front seven can keep Allen in check, it is all for not if the defensive backs can't keep the receivers in front of them.

Key Statistic
70.2 Completion Percentage: Kessler has been remarkably accurate with the football, completing more than 70 percent of his throws and throwing just two picks.

THE TROJANS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Hayes Pullard, LB: Pullard was All-Conference last year, and will likely be again. He leads the Trojans with 59 tackles this season.
Leonard Williams, DT: The All-American is one of the most dominant players in the game. He is remarkably quick and active for being 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. He leads USC in sacks (6.5) and ranks second in tackles (51).
Su'a Cravens, LB Cravens was a freshman All-American safety that got moved up to linebacker in the new regime. He leads the team with two interceptions, but has also added four sacks.

Overview
The quality of talent at USC is as impressive as ever, but the depth remains in doubt. Justin Wilcox is currently starting two true freshmen defensive backs and it could be a deeper vulnerability than he realizes. USC didn't face a lot of potent passing teams early in the year, but then gave up a combined 905 passing yards to Arizona and ASU in first two weeks of October.

Strategy
After watching the Arizona game, Wilcox will probably be tempted to run a base nickel defense against Connor Halliday, but I'm not really sure he can stretch his talent that thin. Teams that have played hard-nosed football have worn the Trojans down. WSU does not fit that profile very well, but a productive second half would not be a surprise if he wears down the DBs early.

Key Statistic
9 Passing Touchdowns Surrendered: USC's ability to keep receivers out of the end zone has been remarkable. They did not give up their first passing touchdown until October.

THE TROJANS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
There is no reason for optimism here. WSU has the worst special teams units in the conference and USC has many of the Pac-12's most dangerous return men. There is no shame in kicking the ball out of bounds at this point.

FINAL THOUGHTS
  • This team still has depth issues. Sarkisian is currently starting five true freshmen, and many more litter the depth chart. Physical teams have exploited it at times.
  • Sarkisian is a legendary road-game choke artist. At UW, he was 7-19 on the road and he would be 0-4 this year if Stanford and Arizona had their kicking games in order.
  • The trip to Pullman marks back-to-back road games for USC, always tough in conference play.
  • This is the last time the two teams will face till 2017.


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