Posted on September 26, 2017, by Travis Pulver
On the outside looking in, the USC Trojans appear to be well in command of their own fate. They are undefeated, and while they have not always played great football, they have played well enough. Sam Darnold may not be the Heisman favorite anymore, but he is still one of the better quarterbacks in college football.
However, they could have easily lost three of those four games. They needed a big come-from-behind effort against Western Michigan. Texas pushed them to their limits, and they had to come-from-behind against Cal as well. What if they were playing a better team during each one of those games?
What if they had been playing a team more like Friday night’s opponent, the Washington State Cougars? Oddsmakers must think the No. 16 Cougars have a fighting chance. They favor No. 5 USC but not by much (3.5 points).
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Washington State head coach Mike Leach has one of the better passing quarterbacks in the country in Luke Falk. The senior has completed 76.9 percent of his passes (130-169) this season for 1378 yards and 14 touchdowns with just one interception.
He leads one of the top offenses in the nation (15th; 504.3 yards/game). They rank 12th in scoring (43.8 points/game), and like every Mike Leach-coached team, thrive on passing the ball (third in the nation; 432.5 yards/game). If that isn’t enough to make USC fans nervous, they don’t turn the ball over either (currently tied for 21st in turnover margin).
USC has not faced an offense like Washington State’s. Stopping them will not be easy. The Trojans shut down the Western Michigan and Stanford passing games, but they didn’t have similar luck against Texas or Cal. They gave up over 300+ passing yards to Cal last week, and Texas freshman Sam Ehlinger almost throw for 300 yards (298).
But at the same time, the Cougars haven’t faced a defense quite like the one USC has. Last week against Cal, the Trojans forced six turnovers bringing their season total to 11 (3rd in the nation).
For the Trojans, the key to their game will not necessarily be getting Sam Darnold on track or shutting down Luke Falk. The key will be getting the run game going again. Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr played great against Western Michigan and Stanford. But against Texas and Cal—not so much.
USC needs to establish the run game to keep Falk off the field. Counting on their defense to stop him may not be enough. However, if they can keep him from taking the field, that may do the trick.
When the Trojans can’t run the ball, they are forced to pass more. Overall, that is a good thing, but Darnold has thrown at least one interception in every game this season. Against a scoring machine like Washington State’s, the Trojans can’t afford to lose a scoring opportunity because of a turnover.
So far, Darnold has gotten better and better as the game goes on this season. He had to be since the Trojans were typically behind late in the game. But he can’t afford to fall too far behind this week. Washington State has outscored opponents 87-19 in the first half this season.
Another slow start could find the Trojans too far behind to complete the comeback.
Darnold is better than he’s played this season and will eventually put it all together once again—but it may not be this week. If it is going to happen for him and the Trojans, it will be because they establish the run game first. That will make it easier on Darnold to get on track.
But don’t count on it happening. Look for Falk to have a solid day and keep the Cougars in this one until the end. It wouldn’t be shocking if this one were to come down to whoever has the ball last.
Take Washington State and the points.