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September 6, 2013

Game Two - Washington State Preview

Game 2: 'Hey Ho Rock 'n' Roll, Deliver Me From Nowhere'

The Washington State Cougars arrive from the Pac-12's most remote outpost with an upset on their minds in the Trojans' late-night home opener.

The USC Trojans (1-0), ranked No. 22 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 25 in the Associated Press (AP) poll, open their home schedule and the 2013 Pac-12 football schedule this Saturday, September 7, against the Washington State Cougars (0-1) at 7:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports 1 cable television audience. This is the 71st meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding a 58-8-4 edge. However, due to the Pac-12's divisional format, this is the first time USC has met Wazzu since a 50-16 victory in Pullman in 2010 - and the first visit by the Cougars to the Coliseum since a 27-6 Trojan win in 2009. Overall, USC has won eight consecutive games against Washington State. The Trojans are 93-18-7 in home openers during their 125-year football history.

A week ago, the Trojans opened the 2013 campaign with a 30-13 victory over Hawaii on a warm Thursday evening in Honolulu. Offensively, quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek struggled to find rhythm behind an inconsistent offensive line performance, and two key drops by wideout Marqise Lee foiled a pair of Trojan scoring opportunities (Lee also had a case of the drops in last season's opener - perhaps something to remember this week). However, solid work by previously untested tailbacks Tre Madden (18 carries, 109 yards) and Justin Davis (14-74) and a swarming defensive performance (4 INTs, 7 sacks) helped keep the game out of the Rainbow Warriors' reach. Meanwhile, WSU quarterback Connor Halliday threw for 344 yards (on 65 pass attempts, second most in school history) but his three interceptions were costly as the Cougars lost a 31-24 nailbiter at Auburn. WSU had two late chances to forge a tie, but saw one end on an interception and the other on downs.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (33-19 career collegiate head coaching record; 26-13 at USC) enters his fourth season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, WSU headman Mike Leach (3-10 at WSU, 87-53 overall in 12 seasons as a head coach) is in his second year on the Palouse after spending 10 years reviving the Texas Tech program. Though the Cougars struggled to a 3-9 mark in 2012, Leach's vaunted passing offense took hold immediately in Pullman, as WSU's 330.4 passing yards per game ranked ninth nationally.

After kicking off the 2013 season with an NFL preseason-style offensive performance on Oahu, the Trojans return home for a three-game homestand that - prior to the season - many believed would easily send them off to Tempe on Sept. 28 with a 4-0 record. However, after USC's uneven offensive effort and with questions still swirling about who will eventually be named the starting quarterback, no game should be considered a "gimme" for the Trojans right now - especially this one, considering how tough the Cougars played last weekend in one of college football's most harrowing atmospheres.

Washington State Offense
Leach passes on the pretense of hiring an "offensive coordinator" as many other offensive-minded coaches do. He is listed as the Cougs' head coach/offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. With his track record, who can argue? Leach's first losing season as a head coach came last year when the rebuilding project in Pullman clearly became far bigger than a single season. This year, it seems that Halliday (who split time with Jeff Tuel in 2012) and the rest of the Cougar offense give Leach at least a little hope for a different story. Though Halliday's three picks were killers a week ago, the redshirt junior appeared more confident behind a line that allowed just two sacks (compared to the astonishing 57 sacks WSU allowed in 2012). If Halliday struggles, don't be shocked to see Leach turn to redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca - the head coach isn't one to dally too long if his QB is underperforming.

WSU will operate in mostly four-receiver sets - and all eight receivers on the two-deep snagged at least one pass at Auburn last Saturday. Sophomore Gabe Marks is the most promising and, after finishing as WSU's second-leading receiver in 2012, led the team last week with nine grabs for 81 yards. Juniors Kristoff Williams (four catches), Bobby Ratliff (three grabs, including a 53-yarder and one TD) and Isiah Myers (two catches) are joined by sophomore Dominique Williams (three catches) and freshman River Cracraft (three grabs) outside. In the always dangerous slot position in Leach's offense, junior Rickey Galvin (five catches) and sophomore Brett Bartolone (one catch) split time against Auburn.

WSU notched its best rushing performance since 2011 at Auburn, knocking out 120 yards on just 23 carries. The 5.2 per carry average is the best for the Cougars in the Leach Era, and the 120 yards represents only the second time in 13 games under Leach that Wazzu cracked the 100-yard barrier as a team. Sophomore Teondray Caldwell (7-53, 3 rec.-14) and junior Marcus Mason (6-43, 2 rec.-20) will split the bulk of the duties, with sophomore Jeremiah Laufasa seeing spot duty in short-yardage situations (he scored a pair of TDs last week).

Not only did the WSU offensive line give up 57 sacks and lead the way for a rushing attack that yielded an anemic 29 yards per game in 2012, but the group also has allowed a total of 244 sacks during the past five seasons. Leach had to be happier with the performance at Auburn from a group that returned a bit more experience than Wazzu has enjoyed in recent seasons. The leader is senior center Elliot Bosch, an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection in 2012. Joining him in the starting five are sophomore LT Gunnar Eklund (a seven-game starter in 2012), sophomore LG Joe Dahl (a transfer from Montana), senior RG John Fullington (who can also switch to tackle), and senior RT Rico Forbes (a redshirt in 2011 who missed 2012 with injury).

Washington State Defense
Second-year defensive coordinator Mike Breske is three decades deep as a collegiate assistant. The Cougars switched to a 3-4 look upon his arrival last year, and though not as aggressive in style as USC's new defensive look, the Cougars did more than double their sack total from 2011 (35, from 17). However, losing stud outside backer Travis Long to graduation means that WSU needs to find some new playmakers in its front seven. The good news: senior strong safety Deone Bucannon is back after a second-team All-Pac-12 campaign in 2012 that saw him notch 106 tackles and four interceptions.

Up front, the Cougars are hoping to improve on last season's rush defense, which gave up 163 yards per contest. They aren't off to much of a start after allowing Auburn to run for 297 yards at a 6.6 per-carry clip. Senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta and sizeable sophomore end Xavier Cooper are returning starters, while junior Kalafitoni Pole starts at the other tackle, after notching three starts in 2012. Quality depth here is questionable, with senior end Matthew Bock and sophomore tackle Darryl Paulo next in line.

Getting the first crack at replacing Long at the Cougars' Buck LB position is big sophomore Destiny Vaeao, a 290-pounder who saw most of his action last season at nose tackle. It's an interesting switch in this style of defense, so it's definitely a work in progress. Sophomore Kache Palacio, who saw spot duty as a back-up here last year, is much more in the physical mold of Long, and also will see time. The other three LB spots are manned by a trio of fleet-footed, somewhat undersized returning starters: senior Justin Sagote on the weak side (61 stops in 2012, five last week); sophomore Darryl Monroe in the middle (80 tackles in 2012, six last week including the Cougars' only sack at Auburn); and junior Cyrus Coen (60 tackles in 2012, four last week).

Bucannon is the unquestioned leader of the defense, and he leapt back into the role quickly with a team-high 14 tackles at Auburn. The Cougars faced some shoes to fill at cornerback coming into 2013, but they've got a pair of part-time starters from 2012 in seniors Damante Horton and Nolan Washington. True frosh Daquawn Brown saw some time as the third corner at Auburn and had a tackle for loss. Former corner Anthony Carpenter is spelling Bucannon at safety and also seeing some time in the nickel, while sophomore Taylor Taliulu is starting ahead of senior Casey Locker at free safety.

Washington State Special Teams
Senior Mike Bowlin handles the punting and kickoff duties. After averaging 41.9 yards per punt in 2012, he averaged 39.2 a week ago. Senior placekicker Andrew Furney, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2012, picked up where he left off, nailing a 44-yarder at Auburn. In the last two-plus seasons, he's 29-of-37 with a long of 60 (against Eastern Washington in 2012). Caldwell handles kickoff returns (he averaged 25.0 in 2012, including a 92-yarder), while mighty-mite senior Leon Brooks (all 5-foot-7, 166 pounds of him) is back to handle punt returns after averaging nearly 11 yards per chance a season ago.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Much has been said about the USC offensive performance a week ago in Honolulu. Most of it hasn't been good. The Trojans struggled to maintain any rhythm, the offensive line was questionable in pass protection, and both of USC's sophomore quarterbacks had more downs than ups. As expected, USC came out running the football. However, ultra-conservative play-calling with the passing game throughout Kessler's time (the first half and first drive of the second half) made it tough for the Trojans to find much room to maneuver. A key fourth-down drop by Lee in the first quarter and the incredible decision to put Kessler back to pass on a first down from its own one-yard line (after being so conservative prior) hampered USC as well. Kessler's audible on his 19-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor and some more effective outside running plays - better utilizing the speed of Madden and Davis - seemed to get the Trojans moving better, but USC was still unable to finish a number of drives. 

Unsurprisingly, that leaves the Trojans with plenty of questions to answer this week. Which quarterback can separate himself? Was Kessler suffering from a case of first-start jitters? Can Wittek use his strong arm to make a statement? Will the Trojans continue to run with the two-headed monster of Madden and Davis, or could Silas Redd make a miraculous return to the lineup? Will USC be able involve its tight ends and receivers not named Lee and Agholor more? Perhaps most importantly: will the front five of senior RT Kevin Graf, senior RG John Martinez, junior center Marcus Martin, sophomore LG Max Tuerk and redshirt freshman LT Chad Wheeler stay intact? Or will junior Aundrey Walker, who can play guard or tackle, slide in? Communication has to be better among this group.

While it's unlikely Redd will return Saturday, don't be surprised to see the Trojans come out running the football once again. The Cougar defense got trampled by the Auburn rushing attack. Wearing down the WSU front seven would also keep the Cougs' potent passing attack sidelined for long stretches. However, if USC is going to run the ball more often, it still must be able to make plays through the air. Opponents seem more and more ready each week for the short USC passing game, and that's a big reason the Trojans were 3-of-14 on third downs in Hawaii. USC must involve more of its receivers. There's a lot of open field between the short throws Kessler seemed to have trouble with and the long bombs that Kiffin seems to love calling for Wittek. To become a more complete offense, the Trojans must use it better.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Even without it's top returning sack man - senior Morgan Breslin - the USC defense had a spectacular night against the Rainbow Warriors. Looking sharp, active and fast in Clancy Pendergast's new 5-2 scheme, the Trojans forced four Hawaii interceptions, sacked quarterback Taylor Graham seven times and held the Warriors to just 23 yards rushing. Redshirt freshman Jabari Ruffin filled in admirably for Breslin, teaming with fellow outside backer and rejuvenated senior Devon Kennard to bring serious heat off the edges, allowing linemen Leonard Washington and George Uko to notch four sacks between them.

The play of Dion Bailey at safety and nickelback was only a revelation in that he was questionable to play. His team-leading seven tackles included a sack, and he also tallied an interception. Linebacker Hayes Pullard and safeties Josh Shaw and Su'a Cravens also had picks, with Shaw housing his from 35 yards out. Outside of first-half injuries to starting corners Anthony Brown and Kevon Seymour and a late 60-yard scoring pass over reserve Devian Shelton, there's not much to complain about here.

Washington State will provide a much sterner test for revamped Trojan defense. Designed to get the ball out quickly, the idea of Leach's offense is to take away the sack or QB pressure as a defensive weapon. While the Cougs didn't have much success with that in 2012, they looked improved last week. Can USC get to Halliday? There's no question that, with Pendergast at the helm and a lack of respect for WSU's rushing attack, they're going to try. That leaves it up to the Trojan secondary. Expect to see a nickel set from USC all night long on Saturday, with Torin Harris seeing most of the time replacing the injured Brown (Seymour appears likely to return). Shaw could also see time at corner this week. For fans wanting a massive change from Monte Kiffin's style from 2010-12 to Pendergast's in 2013, Saturday night's game should be rather intriguing.

The Pick
There have been some rumblings in the media that Leach could make his biggest splash since landing in Pullman with an upset win this weekend. And certainly, with Wazzu's surprising performance at Auburn last Saturday - combined with USC's lackluster offensive effort in Hawaii - it's not a shock to hear those thoughts.

The question here is: can Leach's one-trick offense do enough against USC's newly aggressive defense? Yes, I know the Cougs ran for more than 100 yards last week. But one week does not a trend make. USC must go all in against the WSU passing game and rely on their athletes - including Bailey as a hybrid - when the Cougars do try to mix in the run.

While Washington State certainly seems capable of hanging in this one - especially if the Trojans turn the ball over - USC's physical advantage on both sides of the ball should be too much for the Cougars to overcome. Expect another solid night from the Trojans' young tailbacks and USC's passing attack to finally make some plays, while the Trojan defense, which will give up some yards, forces Halliday into a couple of costly mistakes.

USC 38, Washington State 21

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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