The Trojans had an inconsistent offensive showing against the Sun Devils, but the defense dominated, so it didn't matter. On paper, this looks like another game where it won't matter. WSU is 1-6 and doesn't have any wins over Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1-A) schools. As a matter of fact, they have not been competitive in a game against an FBS school. Their most narrow defeat…a 25 point loss at UCLA that was never a close game. The Trojans are a six touchdown favorite, and the Cougs will be without their starting QB for the last few weeks. This probably makes some people nervous because it reminds them of the Stanford game. Plus, the last time the Trojans went on the road, they got beat up by a 24.5 point underdog in Oregon State. Do the Cougs have any chance of winning this game? Here's a look at the match-up.
Washington State Offense vs. USC Defense
Marshall Lobbestael, the QB for the Cougs since the Portland State game, tore up his knee and is done for the season. Fortunately for WSU, his replacement was ahead of him on the depth chart when the season started. Kevin Lopina is a transfer from Kansas State, and he made two starts before breaking a bone in his back in the Portland State game. Lopina played for Concord De La Salle. He's a decent athlete, but he's not going to blow anyone away with arm strength. Lopina was atrocious before the injury, completing 54% of his TDs with five INTs and no TDs. Right now though, he's their only option. The backup QB is J.T. Levenseller, son of former WSU OC Mike Levenseller. J.T. is a true freshman, and head coach Paul Wulff was hoping to redshirt him. But the only other QB on the roster is a walk on, which means that Levenseller will likely see time this season. Whether it's in the SC game remains to be seen.
The Cougars opened the season in a shotgun no huddle spread offense. They still use the shotgun spread principles, but they junked the no huddle stuff when Lobbestael took over. It will be interesting to see if the no huddle returns with Lopina back. I suspect that it won't. Really though, the offense is similar to what the Cougars ran under Bill Doba. They try to spread you out and throw short passes, and they set up the run with the pass. Wulff strives for a little more balance than Doba did, and will on occasion put the QB under center and line up with two tight ends. They'll run play action bootlegs out of that, but they most run the ball between the tackles in a zone black scheme.
But their running game has been medicore whether it has been out of the shotgun or under center. They've only cracked 100 yards rushing twice this season, and if not for the Portland State game, they would have the worst run offense in the conference. Their leading ball carrier, Dwight Tardy, averages 3.6 yards per carry. He sat out the last game, but will start against the Trojans.
The passing game has been a nightmare for several reasons. A dinged up offensive line has led to the Cougars giving up 24 sacks in seven games, which is awful. None of the QBs has proven to be accurate, and the Cougars have thrown over twice as many INTs as TDs. Brandon Gibson does what he can at wide receiver, and Jeshua Anderson has the speed to be a weapon. But the OL and QB play has made it impossible to establish a deep passing threat. Both Gibson's and Anderson's yards per catch have plummeted from last season's numbers. To make matter worse, starting TE Devin Frischknecht, a viable target on the passing game, is out for the game.
With the uncertainty at quarterback and on the offensive line, this group is the worst offense that the Trojans will face all season, bar none. They don't run it well, their passing game is ineffective, they don't protect the passer, they don't convert on third down, and they have turned the ball over more than any other Pac-10 team.
Washington State Defense vs. USC Offense
The Cougars use the same defensive alignment as they did last season, but they play more games out of it. They are not blitz happy, but they blitz more than Doba's last couple of defenses. They'll put outside linebackers on the line, but they'll also play them back. They don't do a lot of press coverage because they don't have the personnel. They have a lot guys back from last season, but the defense was terrible last year, and it's worse this season.
Here are some numbers to ponder. The Cougars give up 45 points per game, 51 per game against FBS opponents, and 56 per game against Pac-10 opponents…which includes a game against UCLA's horrible offense. They give up over 250 rushing yards per game…and that includes a game when Portland State rushed for nine yards. Opponents average over six and a half yards per carry! The Cougars have sacked opposing QBs six times in seven games…and half of those came against Portland State.
The Cougars have been decent against the pass despite getting no pass rush, but most teams have ignored the pass portions of their offense against WSU. Of their FBS opponents, only UCLA has attempted more than 27 passes, and that's because the Cougars completely sold out to stop the Bruins' mighty running game. (Why they did that is unclear.) Their pass defense is fairly conservative, and they play a lot of two deep zone. They've given up more yards per catch than any Pac-10 team, but they aren't that far behind some of the other teams in the lower tier.
The problem for Paul Wulff is that he just doesn't have enough skill here. A couple of the more talented defensive players that he had got into some trouble off the field, and are not available. It's hard to recruit quality to Pullman, and Bill Doba did a poor job in recruiting late in his tenure. This team doesn't have a pass rusher that scares you, or a linebacker who can play sideline to sideline, or anyone resembling a lockdown corner. Their best player on defense by far is Greg Trent, but he's just one guy. They have high hopes for free safety Xavier Hicks, and he has been an asset on pass defense. But really, that's it. The defensive line is the Pac-10 worst, and the corners are nothing to write about. It will be hard to slow down the Trojans with this group.
There isn't much to say here. The Cougars aren't good at much of anything. They have playmakers at receiver, but they can't utilize them because of poor OL and QB play. They can't balance the offense with a dismal running game, nor can they keep quarterbacks healthy because of poor pass protection. They are starting a QB who threw five INTs and no TDs in three games. On defense, their front seven isn't very good, and even trying to disguise fronts hasn't worked for them. They don't get enough pass rush to just sit back in zone, and they don't have good enough CBs to be a blitz team. To top it off, they may have the worst special teams in the conference. This could be the worst football team I've ever seen in the Pac-10. This will not be a close game, and I think the Trojans will cover the spread simple by running their regular offense and blitzing like madmen on obvious passing downs. The Cougars right now have 1-AA personnel in the Pac-10. That's why they're not competitive.
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