Washington State, seeking a narrative-changing win, hosts a USC team under new management
Sept. 17, 2021 Updated Fri., Sept. 17, 2021 at 9:13 p.m.
PULLMAN – For Nick Rolovich, this is a new one.
The second-year Washington State football boss is preparing his team to face an opponent that will be led for the first time by an interim coach. Rolovich can’t say he’s done that before.
Without a precedent, it’s impossible for WSU to predict how Southern Cal’s change in leadership affects Saturday’s Pac-12 game, which is slated for 12:30 p.m. at Gesa Field.
The Cougars (1-1, 0-0) are trying not to worry about it.
“You can’t tie yourself in knots thinking about what might happen,” Rolovich said. “You’ve got to be able to have sound rules, a sound plan, and go out and make plays.
“It’s just how the coaching circle keeps rolling. It’s a little bit of an interesting piece of the puzzle of this game, but it still comes down to us being ready to play.”
Clay Helton, Rolovich’s friend, was fired Monday after six-plus seasons at USC’s helm. His tenure featured a fair amount of success, but lofty expectations weren’t met often enough, and a poor start to this campaign triggered his dismissal.
He was replaced by second-year Trojan Donte Williams, a defensive assistant and recruiting ace who climbed the coaching ranks quickly and was named last season as USC’s associate head coach.
Rolovich does not expect a “wholesale change” in USC’s approach. The Trojans (1-1, 0-1) retained both of their coordinators and all of their position coaches.
“That’s been the message for everyone: Just go do what you do,” said USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, an Air Raider who formerly assisted with the Cougs under then-coach Mike Leach.
“Let the coordinators try to continue to do their jobs on that side of the ball and let Donte navigate probably a lot of headaches right now.”
WSU’s defense suspects the Trojans will sling the ball around with their veteran quarterback in Kedon Slovis and a receiving corps that is well-stocked with length and big bodies.
The Cougars might be thin in their secondary after entering their Week 2 matchup short-handed, then sustaining a couple of more blows during the game.
“They have a lot of good receivers,” Cougs linebacker Travion Brown said. “We just gotta come out with our A game, ready to play. It’s gonna be a dogfight.”
USC’s defense returns the bulk of its depth chart from a team that smacked WSU 38-13 last season in Los Angeles – the Trojans led by 35 in the second quarter and forced Coug quarterback Jayden de Laura into three turnovers.
“I feel like the coaching change doesn’t really affect us, or really them,” de Laura said. “They’re still gonna come out here and play their best. We just gotta focus on ourselves.”
It’s a distinct possibility that the chaos of this past week in sunny L.A. translates to some level of disorder on the Trojans’ sideline Saturday in rainy Pullman. Rolovich isn’t letting that notion enter his mind.
“You set yourself up for failure if you don’t plan on them coming out with great energy, kind of a renewed sense of purpose,” he said. “Maybe, I don’t know – we’ll see. But you have to plan on it, in my opinion.”
USC’s passing game floundered and its defense got rolled over in the run game by a midlevel Stanford team in a 42-28 decision last weekend. The Trojans were tagged with nine penalties for 111 yards. Helton was then sent packing, and USC has “hit the reset button,” several players and coaches said.
“It’s just one game. It’s literally just one game,” star USC wideout Drake London said. “(A coach) told me some of the best teams, they have a fluke at the beginning of the season, and they win all the rest of them and go to the (champion)ship.”
It’s on Williams to ensure USC steadies out promptly. The Trojans’ aspirations to salvage their season would likely be foiled if they drop their fourth game to WSU in the teams’ past 15 meetings.
Williams is confident in his knowledge of the defense, but less so on other fronts.
“I’m learning it as we go from our offensive coaches, and they’re doing a great job of teaching me,” he said. “There’s input pretty much from the whole team. … We’re going to work hand in hand. It’s not the Donte Williams show, it’s the USC show.”
Both teams can alter their narratives. Pocketing a win in Game 1 under an interim coach would be a major boost for the Trojans. With a rare victory over USC, the Cougs will have flipped the script and perhaps changed the trajectory of their season after opening with a troubling loss to Utah State.
WSU showed improvement in all facets in a Week 2 blowout of Portland State, torching the Vikings’ defense with a balanced, fast-paced system and containing PSU’s explosive offense.
“You look at the film, nothing is soft about them,” Williams said of WSU.
The Cougars’ offense was at the center of the conversation this week. The energetic de Laura appeared to solidify himself as WSU’s quarterback, the run game was leaned on – much to the fans’ approval – and the offensive line rebounded from a shaky Week 1 showing.
But that was against an FCS visitor, not USC, which will provide a more reliable measurement of where WSU stands at this early stage of the year.
Despite the buzz around this one, the Cougs aren’t treating anything different.
“We still gotta play football at the end of the day. We still have to come out and do our jobs,” receiver Travell Harris said when asked about the Trojans’ coaching change.
“They still gotta come here between these lines and play football. Every game is a big game, no matter the team, no matter the stars, no matter the media, or whatever.”
Associated press Washington State offensive lineman Abraham Lucas helped generate an improved Cougars offense during last Saturday’s 44-24 nonconference win over Portland State in Pullman.
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