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Time not on Washington State’s side as Cougars prepare for USC on short week

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 24, 2017

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk (4) watches the defense from the sidelines during the first half of Saturday’s game against Nevada. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk (4) watches the defense from the sidelines during the first half of Saturday’s game against Nevada. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – The Cougars are working with an abbreviated clock this week as they prepare for a visit from the nation’s fifth-best football team.

Had this been a normal week, they’d have six days to prepare for a quarterback who can damage with his arm, his feet and his uncanny improvisation – perhaps the thing that most separates Sam Darnold from the Pac-12’s other elite passers. The Cougars probably wouldn’t mind having a month to game-plan for USC’s preseason All-American. Alas, they have until Friday.

That’s when Darnold and the Trojans will be on the Palouse, looking to extend the nation’s second-longest unbeaten streak (13 games).

“We’re going to talk about it,” WSU coach Mike Leach said of the shortened schedule. “The biggest thing, the most difficult is Sunday and Monday because you’ve got to get the game plan in and get through a whole pile of film. Sunday and Monday is always the toughest and it’s just accelerated it a little tougher yet losing a day.”

Friday’s game between USC (4-0, 2-0) and WSU (4-0, 1-0) will kick off at 7:30 p.m. at Martin Stadium. The implications can’t be understated.

The last time the Cougars started a football season with four wins and no losses, George W. Bush was in the first year of his initial presidential term. A season hasn’t looked this promising for WSU since 2001, but it’s also true that the Cougars still haven’t had a chance to see how their punches land against an opponent of the same weight class. By Saturday morning, we should know if they belong in the same division as the Trojans.

This game is as important for the visitors as it is for the hosts. USC, a four-point favorite as of Sunday afternoon, is supposed to give the Pac-12 its best chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff this season, so commissioner Larry Scott and the rest of the conference higher-ups are probably hoping the Los Angelans won’t trip up in Pullman. The Trojans are dealing with that pressure every time they step on the field this season.

Cal had a few chances to upset USC on Saturday afternoon in Berkeley, but the Golden Bears self-imploded, throwing four interceptions and losing two fumbles in a 10-point Trojans win. That could be a morale boost for Washington State fans, who know the Cougars are much better than Cal in most categories and certainly not as turnover-prone.

In four games – and don’t discount those three overtime periods in week two against Boise State – the Cougars have turned it over as many times as the Golden Bears did in 60 minutes on Saturday. You need a bunch of stat-sheet victories to overcome a team like USC, but you can’t expect to lose in the turnover column and come out on the winning end of the final score.

The Cougars aren’t making many mental errors these days – surely, the WSU coaches who dedicate their life’s work to finding flaws will be able to spot a few – and it’s probably a good sign that folks in Pullman are still asking this question: Which is the better unit, Leach’s Air Raid offense, or Alex Grinch’s Speed Defense?

During Saturday’s 45-7 demolition of Nevada, WSU took a shutout into the game’s final minutes and only conceded seven points when Leach felt good enough about the work his starters put in and plugged in the backups.

But the Cougars didn’t break much of a sweat in the second half against the Wolf Pack, scoring just 10 points after running up a 35-0 halftime lead. This wasn’t much of a shootout, but Leach wants to see steady execution and energy for all four quarters of a game just so the Cougars know how to do it when the stakes are raised.

“I thought we did some good things the second half,” Leach said. “I thought too many loose ends the second half. Not as consistent as the first half.”

The Cougars now have four days to correct those loose ends. It’s not an easy task, but if it’s any consolation, the Trojans have to do it, too.

“The schedule’s moved up a little bit,” quarterback Luke Falk said after the Nevada win. “Definitely got to get this one out of our system. Like now. Start watching film a little bit earlier and I don’t know how they’re going to structure practice, but we’ve got to get our mind on USC now.”

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