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

Story of the game …

It’s the “small-market” team from Pullman versus one of the top brand names in college football – for the last time, perhaps – when Washington State and No. 6 Southern Cal meet at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

The teams aren’t slated to play next season, according to In 2024, USC and UCLA will ditch the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten Conference. The Los Angeles schools’ defections, announced June 30, put the future of the Pac-12 into question and could also put an end to a few longstanding series.

Saturday’s contest will be the 76th game between WSU and USC since the teams first met in 1921. It could be the last Trojans/Cougars game – for a while, at least.

What’s for certain: It will be the final Pac-12 competition between USC and WSU.

The Cougars have already won once in “Big Ten country” this season, toppling Wisconsin 17-14 in Madison on Sept. 10. WSU played another high-profile game on Sept. 24, falling just short of 15th-ranked Oregon, 44-41.

A Cougar win on the road over a top-10 USC team would go down as one of WSU’s most meaningful triumphs . It would mark the Cougars’ 11th win over a top-10 opponent since the creation of the Associated Press poll in 1936. It would provide more proof to a national audience that prestigious names and prominent institutions aren’t everything in college football – the Trojans have 38 four- and five-star recruits on their roster; WSU has one four-star player and no five-star athletes, yet is still one of the Pac-12’s top-performing teams


When Washington State has the ball …

USC’s offense is dominating the headlines, but Dickert thinks the Trojans’ defense should be capturing attention on a similar scale.

“I think everyone knew what they’d be on offense, with all the big names coming in,” he said. “But the consistency they’ve had defensively I think has been really impressive. It changes the course of their team.”

Like their offense, the Trojans’ defense made good use of the NCAA transfer portal this offseason and signed some of the top available defenders on the market, including four-star transfer linebacker Eric Gentry (Arizona State), who leads USC with 38 tackles.

“They just got some real good players. They have some athletes on their team,” Cougars receiver De’Zhaun Stribling said.

USC’s defensive front is providing steady pressure and its backfield is collecting turnovers at an exceptional rate. The Trojans rank fifth nationally with 19 sacks and 20th in the FBS with 36 tackles for loss. They are tied for first in the nation with 15 takeaways, including an FBS-best 12 interceptions.

WSU quarterback Cameron Ward has been mostly sharp in recent weeks, spearheading an offense that piled up 107 points and 1,017 passing yards over the past three games, but the sophomore has shown signs of his youth at times and made some head-scratching decisions. He has thrown seven interceptions.

“He’s owned it. He’s looked at (the mistakes) and he knows where we need to be,” Dickert said of the transfer QB, who leads the Pac-12 in completions (131) and is tied for third in the conference in touchdowns (13) and yards (289 per game). “I think it’s a bigger thing as a team, just the turnover margin (12 giveaways against seven takeaways). Trying to win big games down the stretch in league, we gotta be in the plus category, which we were last year. We need to get back to that.

“I think Cam owns it, but there were plenty of really, really good moments (last weekend in a 28-9 win over Cal).”

USC ranks 14th nationally in pass-defense efficiency rating and is giving up less than 20 points per game this season, but the Trojans have had their fair share of slip-ups on defense. They surrender big gains more often than they’d prefer. USC is allowing 359 yards per game – 57th in the nation.

“I think we can attack them in multiple areas,” said senior slotback Renard Bell, a Los Angeles native and the leader of a well-stocked WSU receiving corps .

“We’re just building more chemistry and that confidence within the offense and within the schemes.”

The Cougars rank No. 11 nationally in red-zone offense, scoring on 95.2% of their possessions inside the 25-yard line. USC owns the nation’s No. 3 red-zone defense, allowing scores just 60% of the time.

While the passing offense is developing at an encouraging pace, WSU’s ground game has struggled. The Cougars are last among Pac-12 teams in rushing attempts (125) and yards per game (91.8).

When USC has the ball …

Trojans coach Lincoln Riley is widely considered one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. He joined USC this offseason after leading Oklahoma and its potent offense to three College Football Playoff appearances and more than 50 wins over the past five seasons.

A host of elite skill players followed him to L.A. via the transfer portal. Williams, the former star Oklahoma QB, headlined the haul. Other notable additions include Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison (Pitt), four-star transfer receiver Mario Williams (Oklahoma) and All-Pac-12 running back Travis Dye (Oregon).

The Trojans operate with a 50/50 balance between passing and running plays. Dye is a workhorse. Williams has four standout receivers at his disposal. The Trojans QB has been particularly effective when he scrambles out of the pocket.

“That’s the kind of player he is,” Riley said. “It’s great if the pocket is clean all day … but in modern-day college football, that doesn’t happen very often.

“That’s why you’re seeing an influx of guys that give you the ability, that can make those things happen.”

Williams is one of the nation’s more efficient quarterbacks, with 12 touchdowns against only one interception – USC’s lone turnover of the season.

“We gotta take the ball away,” Dickert said. WSU has forced seven turnovers after finishing the 2021 season with 29. “We gotta find ways. (The Trojans) have been unbelievable. Just one turnover all year … shows the type of level they’ve been operating at offensively.”

USC’s offense averages 42 points per game, good for 10th in the nation. But the Cougars have proven themselves to be a more-than-capable defensive team under Dickert. They sit 25th nationally in scoring defense (18.2 ppg).

The Trojans’ offense stumbled in one game. USC was held to 17 points on Sept. 24 at Oregon State. Williams dealt with pressure all night and USC needed a go-ahead touchdown late to defeat the Beavers.

Dickert and WSU’s players indicated this week that they’ll have something special schemed up in hopes of containing Williams in the pocket.

The Cougars boast one of the top defensive fronts in the Pac-12 – maybe the nation. They rank second in the FBS in tackles for loss (45) and seventh in sacks (18). USC’s offensive line has surrendered 10 sacks. WSU will need its defensive line and blitz to rattle Williams, so he doesn’t pick apart a Cougars secondary that has experienced mixed results this season.

Did you know?

WSU’s most recent victory over USC came in 2017. The 16th-ranked Cougars made a late stand and toppled the No. 5 Trojans 30-27, triggering a field-storming at Martin Stadium.

Three of the Cougars’ staffers – and one player – during that game have since switched sides. Former WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch (2015-17) works in the same role at USC. Trojans outside linebackers coach Roy Manning served as WSU’s “rush” linebackers coach (2015-17). Dave Emerick, USC’s senior associate athletic director for football, worked at WSU as chief of staff under coach Mike Leach from 2012-19. Former star Cougars linebacker Peyton Pelluer missed the 2017 game with an injury. He’s a graduate assistant at USC.

After his three-year stint at WSU, Grinch coordinated defenses at Ohio State and Oklahoma, then followed Riley to L.A.

“That logo meant the world to me,” Grinch said this week of WSU. “They’re my family, and that’s a great place. But like we tell our guys, the opponent (is) nameless, faceless.”

WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire worked under Leach at WSU from 2012-17 before returning to Pullman this offseason. He played alongside Riley at Texas Tech in the early 2000s. The two were co-workers for the Red Raiders and Eastern Carolina. WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris played receiver at Texas Tech in the mid-2000s under Riley, then a receivers coach.

“I’ve got a lot of friends on that sideline,” Riley said.