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Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against USC

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Don’t take your eyes off …

The sky, first of all. The rain’s probably coming, so wrap up for the Palouse’s first weather-impacted game of the season. “Whether you coach or play here, you know you’re going to have to deal with the elements at some point,” Washington State coach Nick Rolovich said. “The guys that have been here before me, the players are conditioned very well in understanding that.” A downpour might just add to the timelessness of the Cougs’ big-boy matchup against Pac-12 foe USC, a game that’s shaping up to be memorable.

Pay close attention to the Trojans’ sideline, because it’ll feature a new face running the show in interim coach Donte Williams. After six-plus seasons at the helm, coach Clay Helton was abruptly fired Monday. USC has spent the past five days regrouping from both its loss of a leader and its upset loss to Stanford, during which nothing much went right for the Trojans. Williams is certainly feeling pressure to not let the ship sink in his first game.

There’s pressure on the other end of the field, too. Rolovich has been under it since Week 1, and now he has an opportunity to win the program back some support with his first signature victory as the Cougs’ boss. USC opens as a one-touchdown favorite. Bring on the rain. It should be a fun one.

When WSU has the ball …

The Cougs’ offense trotted out a new-look, up-tempo system in the second quarter of the team’s 44-24 rout of Portland State last weekend. An impressively free-flowing WSU attack scored 21 points in only 4:15 of possession time, morphing the contest into a runaway with its passing and rushing games working in harmony. Will the run-and-shoot be about 50% run and 50% shoot again? Will the Cougs speed things up again? The players seem to be fans of the no-huddle design. “With the up-tempo, it keeps the defense on their toes. They aren’t able to line up and we can do what we do at a fast pace,” receiver Travell Harris said. The Trojans return eight starters from their 2020 defense, which smothered WSU in a 38-13 result nine months ago. A lot of eyes will be on sophomore Cougars quarterback Jayden de Laura, who’s coming off his best-career outing but now will be faced with a mighty challenge in a USC team that bottled him up last year. It’ll be interesting to see whether WSU allows de Laura to improvise or takes a more methodical approach. Keep a look out for the star slot duo of Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr.. They have been de Laura’s top two options thus far, and have combined for 271 yards and three touchdowns on 22 receptions. “Both of us can take the top off a defense,” Harris said. “We can run short and medium routes. We just improved our route-running and created separation.”

When USC has the ball …

On paper, their personnel is intimidating, but the Trojans’ hyped talent hasn’t translated to offensive consistency through two weeks. USC scored 13 points over its first eight possessions in its consequential 42-28 loss last weekend to Stanford, a 17-point underdog. The Trojans went three-and-out four times. They settled for field goals twice when inside the Cardinal’s 20-yard line, and veteran quarterback Kedon Slovis threw a pick-6. When the smoke cleared, USC trailed by 29 and there was less than a quarter remaining. The Trojans’ touted Air Raid – showcasing pro-caliber pass-catchers like the 6-foot-5 Drake London (16 receptions, 205 yards), and a dark-horse Heisman candidate at quarterback – fell flat. Through two weeks, USC’s ground game has been more effective, averaging 5.1 yards per each of its 67 attempts. Even with Helton gone, the Trojans will no doubt try to reestablish their passing attack, which will be directed by two disciples of former WSU boss Mike Leach – third-year USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and first-year offensive line coach Clay McGuire, respectively. It’s advantageous that some of the Cougars’ older defenders have experience against the scheme.

But the Cougs might be at a disadvantage in depth. Their secondary has been bitten by the injury bug in recent weeks. Star WSU cornerback Jaylen Watson, a former USC signee, went down with an apparent shoulder injury against Portland State, and starting free safety Halid Djibril seemed to hurt his knee earlier in that game. The Cougs were already playing without three key defensive backs in safety Tanner Moku, and nickels Armani Marsh and Armauni Archie. Rolovich did not reveal if any of the aforementioned players will be available. Williams said USC has taken note of the Cougars’ improving front seven play. “Up front, they’re slanting, they’re moving, they’re twisting. It could cause a problem, especially for someone like us that likes to throw the ball around a lot.”

Did you know?

WSU will break out its full anthracite uniform combination Saturday to commemorate USC’s last trip to Pullman – the Cougs’ most recent victory over the Trojans. On Sept. 29, 2017, quarterback Luke Falk led the No. 16 Cougars past Sam Darnold and the fifth-ranked Trojans in a 30-27 victory at Gesa Field. WSU linebacker Jahad Woods’ strip sack to seal the win in the closing seconds is among the program’s most celebrated moments of recent memory. Ten future NFL players were on that Cougars team, and several of today’s stars were freshmen then – Woods, receiver Travell Harris, safety George Hicks III, linebacker Justus Rogers, edge Willie Taylor III, center Brian Greene, tackle Liam Ryan, tackle Abe Lucas, receiver Renard Bell, defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs and nickel Armani Marsh. Woods, Bell and Rogers played.