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The pick: Why USC will beat Washington State

LOS ANGELES – According to USC’s coach, the Trojans haven’t faced a challenge like Washington State this season.

“Any way you slice it, it’s a really good football team,” first-year USC coach Lincoln Riley said of the Cougars earlier this week on a local radio show. “I think it’s the best football team we’ve played up until this point.”

The sixth-ranked Trojans (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) are two-touchdown favorites against the Cougars (4-1, 1-1). But Riley seems to share the opinion that’d been expressed throughout the week by fans – from both sides – and media personalities: The visitors from WSU shouldn’t be overlooked.

“This is a game (WSU) could absolutely win, even on the road,” Fox analyst Joel Klatt said Wednesday on a Pac-12 preview show.

“USC is favored by 13. That’s too many. … USC wins it late, but closer than 13.”

Sounds reasonable enough.

WSU is one of the up-and-coming teams of the Pac-12. The Cougars appear to be ahead of schedule in their first full season under coach Jake Dickert.

They won’t be intimidated by the national stage and the bright lights of L.A. WSU has played in a couple of high-profile games this season. The Cougars won one, upsetting a ranked Wisconsin team on the road, and nearly prevailed in the other, but a collapse in the final 5 minutes doomed them to a 44-41 loss Sept. 24 against No. 15 Oregon.

It’s not like WSU has any obvious matchup advantages against Trojans, who enjoy more high-level talent on their roster than the vast majority of their college football peers.

To be sure, the Cougars have skill, too. And they’re only improving. But it’s the intangibles – the energetic, resilient playing style – that make WSU tough to put away, and especially difficult to blow out. Under Dickert, the Cougars have lost four games by a combined 22 points, including a 14-point defeat last year at No. 5 Oregon in a contest that wasn’t decided until the fourth quarter.

We expect the Cougars to give heavily favored USC trouble throughout Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 4:30 p.m. at L.A. Memorial Coliseum. WSU’s passing game will continue its upward trajectory and produce impressive stat totals against a USC defense that has been solid overall, but has allowed a few too many big plays for comfort.

USC has outscored four opponents 194-84 this season. A fifth rival, Oregon State, found an effective formula in containing the Trojans’ attack. The Beavers used pressure to bottle up star USC QB Caleb Williams, who completed less than 50% of his passes and had to lead a late drive to pull out a 17-14 win on Sept. 24. Compared to OSU, the Cougars are similarly strong on the defensive side. Dickert and several WSU players indicated this week the team will have something creative schemed up to limit Williams’ running abilities.

But we’re predicting USC to eventually wear down the Cougars and score a go-ahead touchdown in the late stages. WSU’s pass coverage, still a questionable aspect of the team, might not hold for a full game against the Trojans’ skill players.

USC’s turnover-minded defense has an edge against a Cougars offense that’s been prone to giveaways.

In the end, USC will add another win in a lopsided series. The Trojans are 62-10-4 against WSU. The Cougars have beaten USC in L.A. just six times in 48 tries.

The pick: Southern Cal 34, Washington State 29