PULLMAN – When Clay Helton says a few of his assistant coaches crashed in USC’s football offices this week, he isn’t suggesting they were gathering for in-house slumber parties, after-hours coaching summits or anything of the sort.
Nope, Washington State just has their full, undivided attention, which means long hours in the film room and a few sleepless nights.
“There’s been some late nights,” Helton, the third-year USC coach, said Monday, “and a lot of people sleeping on the couches right now just to prepare for this game.”
It’s a biggie, that’s for sure.
Washington State’s offense is running efficiently as always, and the revamped defense is giving opponents more reason to stay up past curfew and skim through game tape. That doesn’t exclude the nation’s fifth-ranked college football team. The Trojans (4-0, 2-0) are the first team favored to beat the Cougars (4-0, 1-0) this season – the spread moved from four points to five – and will be stuffed with talent at every position when they meet WSU in a nationally televised game Friday night (7:30 p.m. ESPN).
The quarterback is at the forefront of every Heisman Trophy debate, the top receiver is a recent addition to the Biletnikoff Award watch list and the best cornerback is a preseason AP All-American. If it gives you an idea, the Trojans’ starting kicker is still a walk-on but already has one of the most credible right foots in the Pac-12 Conference.
Not every USC team this last decade has done the alumni base proud, but the Helton era in Los Angeles is definitely off to a promising start. The Trojans come to Pullman with a 13-game win streak – only Oklahoma, with 14 straight, has been better in that regard – and were victorious in an epic Rose Bowl game eight months ago. They’ve been ranked as high as No. 4 in the Associated Press poll this season.
That’s the team losing sleep over the Cougars this week. Now, it won’t make Mike Leach blush, but if nothing else, it tells you how far the Cougars have come since their coach stepped on campus six years ago.
“We had targeted this game,” Helton said. “… It’s a very important game for our season.”
Luke Falk, who was called to duty the last time these teams bumped into each other, predictably was one of the names that spilled out of Helton’s mouth this week as he assessed the Cougars. Falk replaced Connor Halliday in the first half of a USC blowout in Pullman three seasons ago and WSU’s starting QB has since become one of the country’s elite passers. He needs only 12 completions to jump Sean Mannion on the Pac-12’s all-time leaderboard.
“About as efficient as there is in the league right now and doing a tremendous job with the runners and wideouts that he has,” Helton said.
The USC coach also mentioned WSU running backs James Williams and Jamal Morrow, both SoCal products who certainly would’ve entertained a scholarship offer from the Trojans.
It’s hard to go a town block in Burbank, California – Williams’ hometown – without running into the USC emblem, the redshirt sophomore said.
“That’s going to be the talk of the town, especially in Burbank,” said Williams, who’s managed to vault himself to the top of WSU’s catch chart this season with 37 receptions. “I made it out of Burbank, so it’s going to be a couple of SC people like, ‘Ehh, we may go for you.’ But I’m definitely excited to play ’em. I can’t wait.”
Morrow concedes that “I was a UCLA guy,” but says that his home base, Menifee, California, is an “SC town.” The Cougars’ senior captain also grew up idolizing famed USC running back Reggie Bush.
If Williams and Morrow were overlooked by USC as high schoolers, the duo certainly has the Trojans’ attention now. Those two have accounted for 721 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns. USC is also keeping a close eye on Cougars defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, who’s been one of the Pac-12’s most disruptive players four weeks into the season with 4½ sacks and eight tackles for loss.
“He’s a nightmare,” Helton said of Mata’afa.
Speaking of nightmares, games against top-five opponents have traditionally been horrific for the Cougars. WSU’s coaches have had a full plate this week as well. It’s been 14 years since the Cougars have upset a top-five team (Texas, 2003 Holiday Bowl) and 25 years if you exclude the postseason. In that span, WSU has lost 16 straight.
The Cougars will want to contain quarterback Sam Darnold (98 for 146, 1,225 yards, 9 TDs, 7 int.), running back Ronald Jones (322 rush yards, 5 TDs) and receiver Deontay Burnett (33 receptions, 462 yards, 5 TDs).
It probably isn’t news to the Cougars that this game is as monumental as any WSU has played under Leach but don’t go inside the football operations building expecting a player or coach to build it up.
“The thing is, we go out there and nothing’s being held back,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “… It’s not like there’s some hold back or we’ve got some special package, or we’re digging deeper in the closet. Yeah, I’ve got these reserve charges of effort and focus that I haven’t bothered to mess with because these other games somehow weren’t as important. If you’re ever going to improve, you better be on full steam all the time.”