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Sports >  WSU football

‘We’re confident in what we can do, too’: Washington State returns to national spotlight for matchup with No. 6 USC

Oct. 7, 2022 Updated Fri., Oct. 7, 2022 at 8:43 p.m.

LOS ANGELES – From a general point of view, the football programs at Washington State and Southern Cal don’t share much in common – soon, they won’t even share a conference.

The Trojans have national prestige, one of the world’s top media markets and all kinds of recruiting advantages. USC, which will leave the Pac-12 for the more lucrative Big Ten in 2024, is one of the most recognizable brands in the world of college sports.

WSU, on the other hand, is one of the more modest institutions among Power Five schools. The Cougars aren’t blessed with a glamorous name or location, and the benefits that come with those distinctions. The national spotlight is harder to come by in Pullman. But WSU often punches above its weight and forces the rest of the NCAA to take notice of the “small-market” team in Pullman.

The Cougars (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) are looking to shock the nation when they meet No. 6 USC (5-0, 3-0) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at L.A. Memorial Coliseum. The game will be broadcast for a national television audience from Fox.

Though it might be impossible to draw broad comparisons between the programs – in terms of history and reputation – the teams share some qualities this season.

They are both led by first-year coaches. The rebuilt Trojans and the new-look Cougars both appear to be ahead of schedule. And neither team is one-dimensional.

“They can win gritty games. It’s a lot like our team,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said of USC. “Sometimes, you gotta win it 17-10. Sometimes, you gotta win 35-32. There’s a lot of ways they can do it.”

WSU’s defense and USC’s offense have captured the most attention, but the Trojans can contend in low-scoring contests and the Cougars can keep up in a high-scoring game.

Yet WSU probably wouldn’t prefer a shootout. USC’s offense, directed by coach Lincoln Riley, is among the most efficient and productive in the nation. The Trojans rank 10th in the FBS in scoring offense (42.2 ppg) and have committed just one turnover. They ride a balanced approach to nearly 500 yards per game.

The Trojans stocked up via the transfer portal this offseason, adding some of the premier skill players in the country – including Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams, Oregon running back Travis Dye and Pitt wide receiver Jordan Addison, the winner of the Biletnikoff Award last season.

“The quarterback is unbelievable off-schedule,” Dickert said of Williams. “You want to keep him in the pocket and let him throw, because he’s so dangerous outside of it and untouchable when he runs.

“You don’t shut down anybody that is this caliber. Hopefully, you can get some hits on him when he runs.”

The newcomers are meshing well in Riley’s versatile system, which seems to morph each week depending on its opponents’ tendencies.

“They want USC to win and to be good now, and even better as time goes on,” Riley said. “We’ve got a handful of guys (transfer players) like that. I think that’s been really important to just the overall chemistry and vibe on this team right now.”

Riley called WSU “the best football team” the Trojans have faced this season. The Cougars’ defense should present issues for a USC offense that has outpaced four of five opponents this season, but struggled in a 17-14 win over Oregon State on Sept. 24. Williams was bottled up by the Beavers’ pressure packages. The sophomore QB is at his best outside the pocket, but he’s running for his life more often than the Trojans would like.

WSU’s defense thrives up front and creates havoc with disguised blitzes. The Cougars, who rank second nationally in tackles for loss (45) and seventh in sacks (18), will be counting on their pass rush to rattle Williams and take the pressure off of a WSU secondary that will have its hands full against several top receivers.

“We just gotta keep (Williams) in the box, keep him in the pocket,” Cougars safety Jaden Hicks said.

“If we can do that, I know we’ll win. … I think we have something coming for him. I think we’ll give him something he hasn’t seen before.”

The Trojans’ offense is overshadowing a defense that has a knack for sacks and takeaways.

USC shares the FBS lead with 15 turnovers forced (12 interceptions). The Trojans are fifth nationally with 19 sacks.

“The biggest thing that doesn’t get enough attention is the portal usage for quality defensive players,” Dickert said. “The consistency they’ve had defensively I think has been really impressive.

“The attention goes on (USC’s) players, but we’ve got good players. … A lot of the time, it’s noise. We understand the talent level. But at the end of the day, we’re confident in what we can do, too.”

WSU’s offense is showing signs of progress with each passing week. The Cougar Air Raid has more big-play potential than any of the offensive systems the Trojans have met this year.

It’ll be key for WSU quarterback Cameron Ward to avoid sophomore mistakes – he’s thrown seven interceptions this year. But he’s also been exceptional in stretches over the past three weeks, improvising plays and totaling nine touchdowns and more than 1,000 passing yards.

“He’s an athletic player,” Riley said of Ward. “They do a really nice job in their system, giving him freedom … to use that athleticism, to make plays and they’re obviously going to put the ball in the air quite a bit and challenge you that way.”

The Cougars, who are one spot outside of the AP Top 25, see an opportunity to break into the poll and establish themselves as Pac-12 contenders. WSU is searching for its 11th win against a top-10 team, its 11th win over USC in 77 games and its seventh win in the Coliseum.

“It’s not a sightseeing trip,” Dickert said. “It’s a business trip. … We’ve got a focus to us. Guys are from there (23 Cougars hail from Southern California). They understand it. … There are going to be outside distractions, but it’s all about our focus and energy.”

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