No current USC player has ever beaten Washington State. In 2000, the current seniors watched as the Cougars handed them their first ever last place finish in the history of the Pac-10 conference. Two seasons later, they were denied a trip to the Rose Bowl in an overtime thriller that still haunts them.
Washington State enters LA Coliseum on the wings of an ugly win. The good news is they are still undefeated in conference play, which puts them on more solid ground than Southern Cal.
With one conference loss already, USC would be virtually eliminated from the Rose Bowl race if they, once again, lose to the Cougs. Expect them to come out firing with everything they've got on Saturday.
TROJANS ON OFFENSE
Overview: In the 3rd year under his guidance, Norm Chow's offense has hit its stride. He has tightened up the passing attack with more intermediate range throws and three-step drops; limiting opponent's ability pressure the QB. A breadth of playmakers at the skill positions has turned a lot of small plays into big ones. They don't gamble much as they've controlled the pace of the game and, in turn, the scoreboard in most every contest. This offense relies on timing and efficiency but will also bulldoze opponents when needed. USC averages an impressive 40 points per game and leads the conference in rushing yards, passing efficiency, and has the second fewest turnovers.
Strategy: USC has as much talent on the roster as they have had in a decade. Top to bottom they are loaded with speed, size, and athleticism. What they don't necessarily have is experience. The o-line is fairly seasoned but those handling the football are mostly freshman and sophomores. WSU needs to try and make this work against them. Matt Leinart hasn't taken very many hits this year and may show inexperience if effectively pressured. The Trojans have had the luxury of a strong rushing game and effective short-range passing game to keep defenses off balance. Washington State must bring their A-game and stop the run while suffocating the short-range passes. Only then will USC probably try and extend the field; exposing themselves to the turnovers and sacks that can alter momentum.
Matt Leinart, QB: In just his sophomore year, Leinart has filled the enormous shoes of Carson Palmer with what seem like size 17 feet. Through 8 games he has thrown for 21 TDs against just 7 INTs, completing 63 percent of his passes for nearly 2200 yards. He has shown remarkable poise and complete command of Chow's offense. If WSU is to win, they must get after him quickly and often; he has only been sacked 10 times all year.
Mike Williams, WR: At 6-foot-5 and 211 pounds with NFL-level speed and hands, he is a walking nightmare for cornerbacks. So far this year he has 54 catches for 786 yards and a conference best 8 TDs. You simply can't underestimate his abilities although he may be slowed a step due to a high ankle sprain he suffered last Saturday.
Kerry Colbert, WR: Teams that have mistakenly focused all of their attention on Williams have been burned badly by Colbert. He has 40 catches for 649 yards this year with 6 TDs. He'll likely be Karl Paymah's responsibility to contain.
Hershel Dennis, LenDale White, and Reggie Bush, RBs: Like last year, SC features a three headed monster at tailback. This time, White is the thunder to Bush and Dennis' lighting, meaning the Trojans can run over or around defenders. They're also substantial pass catching threats out of the backfield. So far, the trio has rushed for over 1200 yards and 14 TDs. They've also caught 18 balls between them for 257 yards and 3 scores.
Brandon Hancock, FB: USC has lost its top two tight ends for the season so Hancock has been asked to fill that role as well as his fullback duties this season. He has good hands and is tough to bring down if he makes a catch.
TROJANS ON DEFENSE
Overview: While they haven't quite lived up to their own hype, the USC front 7 is still better than anything the Cougars have faced this year. Southern Cal's D trails only WSU's in scoring, run defense, forced turnovers, and sack categories. Statistically the Trojans have surrendered the second most passing yards in the conference, but one must take into account the pass-happy opponents they have faced before reading too much into that number. The Trojans run a base 4-3 defense, but the formation is somewhat offset with 3 big DT types and one strong-side speed rusher up front. The secondary runs primarily man coverages and typically stays close to where the action is.
Strategy: While their pass defense hasn't necessarily been bad, it does appear to be the weaker aspect of their defense. Their starting corners are fine, but depth is limited. The safeties are young and have occasionally been caught misreading plays. Matt Kegel may get plenty of passing yards, but the question will be how many sacks and turnovers will come as a result. To have any chance of keeping Kegel effective, WSU must balance out their attack with some semblance of a running game. The holes the Cougs opened up against Oregon State were few and far between and the task becomes more difficult this week. USC will likely prepare a scheme designed to put heavy pressure Kegel and force costly mistakes similar to last week.
Matt Grootegoed, LB: USC's leading tackler from last season had to sit out the UW game with a high ankle sprain and is questionable for this weekend's match. His absence is missed especially in the leadership department.
Lofa Tatapu, LB: First year starter Tatapu is the son of NFL great Mosi Tatapu and leads the Trojans in tackles with 53, with 9.5 tackles for a loss and an interception for a touchdown. He is somewhat undersized at 215 pounds, but is lighting quick and hits with force.
Darnell Bing, FS: The true freshman is a key element of the USC defense and a possible weak point. He has excelled in run support, but his youth may yet get him into trouble.
Mike Patterson, NT, Kenechi Udeze, DE: USC's whole front four can be dominating, but Patterson and Udeze have caused the most headaches this season. With 13.5 sacks, 70 tackles, and 23 tackles for a loss between them, they are a disruptive force up front.
Will Poole, CB: One of two starting senior cornerbacks for SC, Poole is arguably the better of the two. They've had success in tight man coverage to this point but depth here is somewhat unproven. The slot receiver may be a focal point for Kegel and WSU may use 4-receiver sets and the TE to stretch the secondary thin.
TROJANS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Trojan punter Tom Malone averages a league best 49 yards per punt and often gets USC out of the few jams they get into. Kicker Ryan Killeen has been lackluster but efficient, connecting on 77% of his attempts, but has only hit two beyond 40 yards this season. USC is slightly below average in most kick return and coverage categories.
There are reasons senior quarterbacks traditionally win the Pac-10; experience and instinct. Both Leinart and Kegel face the biggest challenge of their careers to date but Kegel has an edge; he's beaten his opponent before. He is also surrounded by a coaching staff that has proven they can contend with Pete Carroll's crew and a supporting cast of players that have never known defeat against the Trojans. In an environment where both teams are tough, talented, and confident, experience could be the deciding factor.