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Analysis: USC uses Air Raid avalanche to build five-touchdown lead, bury Washington State 38-13

USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown makes one of his four first-quarter touchdown receptions on Sunday, beating WSU’s Armani Marsh.  (Keith Birmingham/Orange County Register via AP)

LOS ANGELES – Losing to No. 16 USC on the road may have been a predictable outcome for a Washington State team that hadn’t played a game in 22 days, one that spent more than a week practicing without its starting quarterback as he recovered from COVID-19 and one missing six players whose names were printed on the defensive depth chart before a Nov. 14 meeting with Oregon.

The Cougars, after all, were two-touchdown underdogs in Los Angeles. Even then, oddsmakers may have given them too much credit.

With all the aforementioned circumstances working against them, the Cougars created some for themselves and the Trojans mounted a five-touchdown lead midway through the second quarter and held their guests at bay after halftime, winning 38-13 at the crowdless Coliseum.

USC, which represents the Pac-12’s only shot at a College Football Playoff bid – albeit a long shot – improved to 4-0 while WSU lost its second straight game, dropping to 1-2.

“It’s hard to blame it on rust,” Cougars coach Nick Rolovich said. “We were still practicing, guys were still getting reps. I’ve got to get these guys more prepared to play. Pregame I wasn’t sure if it was the quiet before the storm or there was some intimidation, but I don’t know if it was the rust.

“Even though we had some guys down, that’s been the whole year. The whole year it’s been like that, so hard to use that as an excuse in my opinion.”

USC spotted a mismatch early, or perhaps realized the Cougars were missing someone the Trojans knew to be a quality player in cornerback Jaylen Watson, who was headed to Troy in 2019 before academic setbacks forced him to take the junior college route. Watson, of course, wouldn’t have made up a five-score deficit on his own, but he would’ve given WSU another coverage option against USC receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who had a field day roasting WSU’s defensive backs.

The former five-star recruit outran them, climbed over them and vanquished them in the end zone, hauling in four touchdown passes in the first quarter, matching the single-game Pac-12 and USC record in that category.

Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis, who at one point completed 18 consecutive passes in the second and third quarters, threw one more touchdown to someone whose last name wasn’t St. Brown, hitting Tyler Vaughns for a 35-yard score that turned a lopsided game into a full-on runaway at 35-0. The USC avalanche effectively stopped there and WSU was able to punch in a touchdown before the half, with wide receiver Travell Harris taking a direct snap into the end zone from five yards out, but the damage done by the Trojans over the course of 23 minutes in the first half was far too much to overcome.

“You’ve got to give credit to the opponent, they have a good scheme, they made great plays here and there,” edge Brennan Jackson said. “We’ve just got to come out swinging faster, we can’t get punched in the mouth like that. … Definitely a little sloppy in the first half, but things we can all get corrected.”

Even as the Cougars grew more competent on defense, the unit many thought would go toe-to-toe with the Trojans continued to sputter after halftime.

Jayden de Laura, who missed a not-insignificant chunk of practice time with a COVID-19 diagnosis, threw two interceptions in the first half – both setting up quick USC touchdowns that helped turn a scoreless game into a four-touchdown blowout virtually eight minutes later. On the first pick, Talanoa Hufanga tipped a de Laura pass intended for Harris and controlled it into his arms before turning the other way, pedaling through a sea of white jerseys and hurdling over WSU’s quarterback before he was forced out at the 4-yard line.

The freshman mistakes that mostly eluded de Laura in games against Oregon State and Oregon seemed to come in waves during Sunday’s game at the Coliseum. De Laura’s second pick came on the next drive as the QB tried to squeeze in a throw to Lucas Bacon, who was tightly covered by Olaijah Griffin. Griffin boxed out Bacon, made the interception and Slovis needed just four snaps to dial up his fourth touchdown of the game, and fourth to St. Brown.

Without a chance to review the game on film, Rolovich was reluctant to evaluate the play of his own quarterback, but he was quick to praise USC’s defense.

“I think the defensive side of the ball (for USC), especially the secondary, the corners played good,” Rolovich said. “They played some man and switched up the looks. I think some credit is deserving to the defense of USC.”

De Laura was credited with his third turnover during the second possession of the third quarter, an errant handoff to running back Deon McIntosh. After completing 43 of 72 passes for 548 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in his first two starts, the WSU quarterback was 18 of 29 passing for 134 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Against Oregon and OSU, De Laura rushed for 54 yards and one touchdown while taking one sack, but the QB gained just 11 yards on seven carries against USC and finished with a net total of -17 yards, with three sacks.

There weren’t too many opportunities in the run game for McIntosh, who’d emerged as a Cougars star in the first two games, rushing 34 times for 239 yards and a pair of touchdowns. McIntosh broke off a few longer runs and finished with 6.5 yards per carry, but he had his lowest rushing total of the year, with 10 carries for 65 yards.

Some silver linings could be obtained from the fact the Cougars outscored the Trojans 13-10 after the first quarter, and 7-3 after the halftime break, but WSU players weren’t necessarily ruminating on those before boarding a bus Sunday night and preparing for the return trip to Pullman.

“I guess,” offensive lineman Abraham Lucas said. “It is nice to see resiliency of course, but the fact is you’ve got to come out fast and not start fast in the third or fourth quarter, at halftime or whatever. They jumped out on us, they came out fast and they deserved the credit for it.”

Two other WSU quarterbacks, Gunner Cruz and Cammon Cooper, made their college debuts on Sunday and traded playing time in the fourth quarter. Cruz came in first and finished 5 of 7 for 34 yards, throwing his first touchdown pass to Renard Bell late in the fourth quarter. Cooper was 3 of 3 for 22 yards.