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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Coming off unpleasant week, USC to visit Pullman

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 13, 2021

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Washington State (1-1) will play its third consecutive home game to begin its season, opening Pac-12 play against USC (1-1).

Where is it? Gesa Field in Pullman.

When is it? Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where can I watch it? FOX will broadcast the game.

Who is favored? The Trojans opened as 10-point favorites Sunday, but that number has since dropped to 8.5.

How did they fare last week? WSU had no trouble with FCS opponent Portland State, tuning up with a 44-24 win. USC was humbled by Stanford, losing 42-28 in a game that wasn’t really close from the second quarter onward. Two days later, seventh-year Trojans coach Clay Helton was fired for failing to meet expectations. Cornerbacks coach/associate head coach Donte Williams, regarded as one of the best recruiters in the nation, will take over as interim coach.

Why WSU will win: It’d be fair to assume the Trojans’ coaching disorder will have a negative effect on the team’s performance. USC could look jumbled and disinterested after such an unpleasant week, and it’s not like this Trojan team is playing like one of those past powerhouses, anyway. USC only led 13-7 in the fourth quarter lowly San Jose State in Week 1 before pulling away. The Trojans trailed 35-13 entering the final period against Stanford, a team predicted to finish fourth in the Pac-12’s already rickety North Division. The Cougars feel like they found some mojo and shored up a few weaknesses during their FCS tune-up game. Jayden de Laura played fast and free, and received Pro Football Focus’ third-highest grade among FBS quarterbacks in Week 2. WSU alternated its running backs effectively, its receivers shined and its defense regained confidence with three steady quarters. Tackle Abe Lucas, running back Max Borghi, receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., and edge-rushers Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson all were top-seven Pac-12 players at their positions in Week 2, per PFF.

Why USC will win: The Trojans are scary on talent alone. Their Air Raid offense is stocked with big-bodied skill players exhibiting top-class athleticism, plus a capable pro-style junior quarterback in Kedon Slovis. About 10 Trojan pass-catchers are expected to see the field each game, and of those regulars, six stand above 6-foot-3. Drake London, a 6-5 junior NFL prospect, leads the pack with 205 yards through two games. Memphis transfer Tahj Washington (103 yards), the speedster of the group, has been the second option so far. “There’s a lot of guys that can make plays, a lot of just good wide receiver skill sets,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said. Slovis has “been a really good player for a long time,” Rolovich added. The 6-3, 205-pounder is a top-10 USC passer all time. He has completed 70% of his attempts on his career for 5,423 yards and 50 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. WSU’s secondary has been bitten by the injury bug. Three key pieces missed last weekend’s game, and star cornerback Jaylen Watson sustained an injury that was serious enough to force his left arm into a sling. The Trojans often trot out transfers and freshmen from a 2021 recruiting class that ranked No. 7 in the FBS.

What happened last time? The visiting Cougars suffered their ugliest defeat of the 2020 season, losing to the Trojans 38-13 on Dec. 6 in a game that was shifted around because of coronavirus protocols. USC dismantled WSU from all angles early and went up 35-0 midway through the second quarter, then took its foot off the gas. The Cougars’ first four drives featured a turnover on downs, two punts and two de Laura interceptions. Slovis connected with wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown on a staggering four first-quarter touchdown passes. “First quarter was pretty horrendous,” Rolovich said Saturday of last year’s USC game. “We kinda settled in and did some things to keep it a pretty even ballgame the rest of the way.” WSU is 2-3 against USC since 2013 but overall the Cougars are 10-61-4 in the lopsided series. The Trojans won eight matchups in a row from 2003-10. The last time the teams met on the Palouse, WSU had one of its best games in recent memory. The 16th-ranked Cougars toppled No. 5 USC 30-27. Before then, WSU had not beaten the Trojans in Pullman since 2002.

Things to know

1. WSU’s roster features a whopping 42 Californians, and 19 of them hail from the Los Angeles metropolitan area. But just three – receiver Renard Bell, safety Halid Djibril and defensive tackle Ahmir Crowder – list L.A. proper as their hometown. Two Cougar players, long-snapper Simon Samarzich and walk-on receiver Carter Kamana, have family ties to USC. Samarzich’s father, Dave, attended the school and was a roommate with former Trojan O-line great Bruce Matthews. Kamana’s grandfather, John (center, 1953-54), and uncle, John (fullback, 1980-83), played at USC.

3. The coaching connections between the programs are abundant. USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell coached receivers at WSU from 2014-15. Trojan offensive line coach Clay McGuire held the same post at the Pullman school from 2012-17. Cougar safeties coach Mark Banker assisted at USC in 1996. WSU’s transfer recruiting director, Justin Mesa, spent seven seasons on USC’s staff, from 2006-12. Offensive analyst Dan Ferrigno was at USC in 2000.

3. Harrell learned the Air Raid from former WSU coach Mike Leach, first as a player at Texas Tech and then as an assistant on the Palouse. The Cougars’ defense boasts several players who were around to practice against Leach’s Air Raid. Rolovich’s run-and-shoot shares some spread concepts with Harrell’s offense. It’s possible that the two unique styles of offense have only ever matched up at the Power Five level once before – when USC hosted WSU last year.

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