USC takes on their second heavyweight conference foe this Friday, having smashed Stanford when the two battled a few weeks ago. Since then, it’s been rough sledding for the Trojans, who have seen struggles on both sides of the ball allow supposedly inferior teams to stay much too close for comfort. Washington State has looked complete, by contrast- but only if you don’t let yourself remember an outing against a mediocre Boise State where they didn’t look anything like a top 25 squad.
Sam Darnold’s Struggles- The Heisman campaign of Sam Darnold isn’t over, but it is on life support. The heralded quarterback has been merely okay through the first four games, with a solid 8.4 yards per attempt offset by an alarming 7 interceptions. He also hasn’t been much a rushing threat, with 15 carries for 0 yards. 7 of those carries are sacks, but he’s not running the ball very much at all, at this point. It’s hard to say what has caused this drop in his performance, but the natural place to look is the wide receiver position.
Trojan Wide Receivers Seek an Identity- Deontay Burnett is the closest thing the Trojans have to a star receiver, but there’s no one lighting up the highlight reel. Sam Darnold is accustomed to having receivers who can catch anything he throws near them, but the absence of JuJu Smith-Schuster is being felt in the wide receiving corps. The Trojans needs another elite athlete to step up at this spot; they have multiple four- and five-star recruits who should be able to make more noise.
Trojans’ Pass Rush- USC’s 11 sacks are good for 23rd in the country, and considering that they’ve played a more rigorous schedule than most through this point in the season, that’s an impressive number indeed. The smooth-operating Air Raid offense of the Cougars is a challenging one to defend, but with so many pass attempts there’s an opportunity to get after the quarterback. No quarterback is great with their butt in the dirt, not even Luke Falk.
Tickle Torture Schedule- The Cougars have looked good, but they’ve yet to be tested by a high-level opponent to this point in the season. In fact, they have played one of the weakest schedules in the FBS, with their lone legitimate foe being a 2-2 Boise State team who doesn’t look to compete for a Mountain West Conference title this season. It took two overtimes to take down the Broncos. WSU still has a lot to prove.
Defense For Real?- The chief test of the authenticity of this Cougars team comes from the defense. Their 18.5 points allowed per game is 29th in the nation, but they’ve never been tested by athletes like the ones USC puts on the field. They likely won’t be able to totally stop the Trojans, but they will look to slow them down and match them blow for blow throughout the game.
Advanced metrics have this as one of the best conference games of the young season, and support the analysis that this should be a close fought, back-and-forth affair with plenty of scoring for both teams. G.A.W.P. favors the Trojans on the road by a hair, giving USC a 57.4% chance to win.
The Trojans tend to win this game when it’s either a wild, high scoring affair or a blowout. If the Cougars come away with the win here, it’s usually a scenario where the scores are more usual- the 30-40 range for each team. This jives withe prevailing analysis for this matchup- if the Cougars are legit, they have a slight advantage. However, that’s a big enough ‘if’ that there is ample opportunity for the Trojans to take them down.
The taller curve is the Trojans’ score projection- there’s certainty about what they bring to the table at this point. The shallower curve of the Cougars is because there’s much we still do not know about them. They could get stymied by the Trojan’s suffocating pass rush, or they could pick apart USC’s defense the way you would expect an elite offense to do.
This will come down to how legit Washington State’s offense is. If they’ve been preying on the weak, Luke Falk will spend most of the game on his backside and USC will grind out touchdown drives behind the pads of their pair of excellent running backs. If they are elite, they’ll go toe-to-toe with the mighty Trojans and be in it at the end. The Blog thinks they are legit… but not legit enough to win.
USC 41, Washington State 39