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Washington State notebook: Cougs looking for 11th win over top-10 opponent since start of AP rankings

USC wide receiver Tahj Washington, right, hauls in a pass as Washington State cornerback Chau Smith-Wade prepares to make a tackle during a Pac-12 game on Sept. 18, 2021, at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Since the creation of the Associated Press college football poll in 1936, Washington State has played 78 games against opponents ranked in the AP’s top 10.

The Cougars are hoping to pick up their 11th top-10 win in 86 years when they meet the sixth-ranked USC Trojans at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

WSU, with a program record of 10-68 against AP top-10 teams, most recently faced a top-10 challenge last season, falling 38-24 to fifth-ranked Oregon. The Cougars’ last win over a top-10 adversary was a 30-27 home defeat of No. 5 USC in 2017.

The Cougars pocketed their first top-10 win in 1941 – a 14-13 decision at No. 6 Stanford. WSU didn’t capture another top-10 triumph for 30 years – a 24-23 victory at No. 10 Stanford in 1971. The Cougars came away with three top-10 wins in both the 1980s and 2000s, including a 34-30 stunner at No. 1 UCLA in 1988 and a 28-20 Holiday Bowl victory over No. 5 Texas in 2003.

They lost nine consecutive games against top-10 opponents to open the 2010s before taking down USC on Sept. 29, 2017, at Martin Stadium.

Record-setting WSU quarterback Luke Falk outdueled star Trojans signal-caller Sam Darnold, who lost a fumble when he was sacked by Cougars linebacker Jahad Woods late on a game-sealing play. Fans stormed the field and former WSU coach Mike Leach famously equated the postgame environment to “Woodstock, except everybody’s got their clothes on.”

Historically, USC carries a top-10 ranking into matchups with the Cougars more often than any other WSU opponent – 25% of all the Cougars’ games against top-10 foes have featured USC on the other sideline.

The Cougars are 2-17 versus top-10 Trojans teams.

WSU dropped six consecutive games against top-10 USC squads in the 1970s – Southern Cal programs claimed three national titles in the ’70s – before the Cougars recorded their first upset win over a highly ranked Trojans team, posting a 34-14 victory over No. 9 USC in 1986 in Pullman.

WSU absorbed seven blowout losses against USC’s powerhouse teams of the 2000s. The Trojans were a perennial top-10 program under coach Pete Carroll (2001-09).

The Trojans are 62-10-4 against WSU, with a 40-6-2 advantage at the Coliseum. WSU last topped USC in L.A. in 2013, grinding out a 10-7 win.

The Cougars haven’t won a true road game over a top-10 team since routing No. 10 Oregon 55-16 in Eugene in 2003. The Cougars’ road record versus top-10 opponents: 4-39.

WSU (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) is just outside the AP rankings and looking to pull off a rare accomplishment, a monumental win in the program’s history. The Cougars, 1-10 versus top-10 teams since 2010, are two-score underdogs against USC (5-0, 3-0), the early-season favorite in the conference.

“Our guys are excited for the challenge. We’ll have a great game plan,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said when asked about the magnitude of this game. “These are the weeks where everyone understands what’s at stake. Everyone understands the challenge. Everyone understands going into this environment and playing big-time football.

“They’re excited for it. We’re going to be ready. The effort level and excitement is going to be huge, but it still comes down to us executing. It isn’t about the environment. It isn’t about going home (23 WSU players hail from Southern California). It’s about executing in the moments against really good players and getting them down.”

Top CB emerges for WSU

Chau Smith-Wade is the No. 3-graded cornerback in the Pac-12, according to PFF’s performance metrics. The first-year starter has given up 15 catches for 129 yards but has yet to surrender a touchdown.

“It’s hard to debate – he’s probably been our best corner,” Dickert said Wednesday. “That’s a great place to be for now and definitely for the future. He’s a competitor. He comes to work, he’s been physical and he’s been controlling the vertical passing game.”

Smith-Wade saw some playing time as a true freshman during the 2020 season affected by the coronavirus. He held down the No. 3 CB role last season, sliding into a starting spot for the season finale at the Sun Bowl – star senior corner Jaylen Watson opted out to prepare for the NFL draft.

“He played as a true freshman and I think that was a hard thing to do, but we saw a lot of talent,” Dickert said. “We’ve just been battling consistency, and I think he’s matured a lot. I still think there’s room for growth.”

During the preseason, Smith-Wade was expected to be WSU’s second-most reliable option at CB this year, behind senior Derrick Langford Jr. – a second-year starter. But Smith-Wade has been a more consistent performer .

Last season, Watson was WSU’s lock-down CB. He always drew the toughest coverage assignments. This year, the Cougars are leaving Smith-Wade on the left side of the field and Langford will stay on the right.

“We just kinda play them on each side of the field, where they feel most comfortable,” Dickert said. “We’re not following (receivers) or traveling with guys or anything like that. … I think it’s a good position for both of them to be. But (Smith-Wade) has done a good job. We needed him stepping up in the secondary. It’s not a surprise, but it’s a good place to be for Chau.”

The Cougars’ secondary will face a formidable task this weekend when it challenges USC’s receiving corps, headlined by one of the nation’s best in Jordan Addison, the winner of the Fred Biletnikoff Award last season while at Pitt.

“They get him the ball in unique ways,” Dickert said of Addison. “He’s got a couple of big, explosive plays off the screen game. But he’s so smooth in and out of cuts. He creates such separation at the top of routes.

“We gotta find a way to double him at times.”

Cougars pressure QBs at high clip

WSU is tied for second nationally in tackles for loss (45) and shares seventh place on the FBS leaderboard in sacks (18). When the Cougars aren’t making stops in the backfield, they are still disrupting plays.

Pro Football Focus revealed the top five quarterback-pressuring defenses in the Power Five via Twitter on Thursday. The Cougars are fifth among power conference teams with 107 QB hurries – behind Penn State, Texas, Illinois and UCLA.

If they plan on slowing down USC QB Caleb Williams, the Cougars will need to provide steady pressure and prevent him from escaping the pocket. Williams is at his most dangerous when he scrambles into open field.

“We just gotta keep him in the pocket. If we can do that, I know we’ll win,” Cougars safety Jaden Hicks said. “I think we have something coming for him. I think we’ll give him something he hasn’t seen before to throw him off.”