GAME PREVIEW: Cougs open up conference play vs. USC without Clay Helton

Jack Ellis | CougCenter

After a successful Week two, the Cougars of Washington State will look to keep the momentum rolling as they welcome in the Clay Helton-less Trojans of Southern California to open up Pac-12 play.

On Monday afternoon, USC announced the firing of Clay Helton after a 46-24 record in his seventh year as the leader of the Trojans. His fate was apparently sealed when unranked Stanford came into the Coliseum and beat the Trojans 42-28. The Trojans will have cornerback coach Donte Williams lead the Trojans into Pullman this Saturday as the interim head coach.

Matchup History

We have good news and bad news. The good news is the Cougs are on their second best stretch of five games against the Trojans in program history! The bad news? It’s only winning two of those five games. The only times the Cougs have performed better against the Trojans in a stretch of five games was between 1997 and 2002 when the Cougs took three of five from the Trojans. Albeit the Trojans still had the positive point differential in those five matchups thanks to a 42-14 route in Pullman in 1998 but three wins against USC is still three wins!

These stretch of five games have included some really great and really painful memories. Starting in 2013, the Cougs were able to go down and beat the #25/22 Trojans 10-7 in LA for the first time since 2000 thanks to a Damante Horton 70 yard pick six.

The next year was not as fun. Connor Halliday, leading the nation in passing, broke his leg early in the game as the Trojans steamrolled the Cougs 44-17 on a cold rainy November afternoon.

The two didn’t meet again until a September Friday night on the Palouse when USC came in ranked fifth in the nation. The Cougs rolled out their new all anthracite uniforms as Jahad Woods shot right through the USC defensive line untouched late in the game for a strip-sack to seal the upset win for the #16 Cougs first top-5 win since beating Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl. ESPN panned over the field as students and alumni stormed it and Mike Leach gave us an all-time quote.

“It’s a good win. There’s a lot of people. It’s like Woodstock, except everybody’s got their clothes on.”

Mike Leach (2017)

In 2018, with the Cougs driving down the field with a chance to take the lead, Gardner Minshew definitely did not take a totally clear late hit from USC linebacker Porter Gustin to the head. Although Larry Scott and the Pac-12 said it was close to targeting, apparently a late hit, launching the crown of the helmet to the head, on a quarterback, isn’t targeting. Blake Mazza’s 38 yard field goal attempt was blocked and the Trojans would hang on and beat the Cougs 39-36 to hand WSU one of their only two losses in 2018.

Playing on a rare Sunday December night last year, the Trojans jumped out to a 28-0 lead at the end of the first quarter before the WSU defense finally woke up and held the Trojans to a slight 38 points in a 38-13 win for the Trojans in an eerie and empty Coliseum.

The 2021 USC Trojans

The Trojan offense will be led by junior quarterback Kedon Slovis. Coming into Saturday’s contest, Slovis has completed 65.4% of hiss passes for 479 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The running game is pulled by a two-headed monster in Vavae Malepeai, with 29 carries, and Keaontay Ingram with 25 carries. Both running backs are averaging over five yards a carry but Ingram is the lone running back between the two with a touchdown. Fellow running back Darwin Barlow has the other rushing touchdown for the Trojans.

When Slovis drops back on Saturday, expect him to be looking one of two ways. Either towards 6’5 junior Drake London or towards 5’11 sophomore transfer from Memphis, Tahj Washington. The two talented receivers are currently the only Trojans with more than four receptions. However, London is currently listed as questionable on ESPN as he was limited in practice on Tuesday due to an ankle injury suffered in the Stanford game.

As for the defense, they were pretty prone to giving up multiple big plays against Stanford. The Trojans gave up an average of 10.2 yards per pass and were gashed for an 87 yard touchdown run early in the game. On top of allowing the big plays, the Trojan defense also gave up some brutal penalties. Early in the second quarter, with the game tied at seven, USC was called for an unnecessary roughness on a second and 10 to put Stanford at the USC 31 and a defensive pass interference on third and four to put Stanford at the 10. To top it all off, after forcing Stanford to settle for a field goal, USC was called offsides on the made field goal attempt. So, David Shaw and the Cardinal decided to take the three points off the board and scored a touchdown from three yards out to give the Cardinal a 14-7 lead instead of a 10-7 lead they would have had if USC wasn’t offsides.

Late in the third quarter, with the game still within reach, USC committed back-to-back defensive pass interference penalties that took Stanford from the USC 34, to the USC five yard line where they would score a touchdown just three plays later to take a commanding 35-13 lead.

The Trojans finished with nine penalties for a whopping 111 total penalty yards. That’s more yards than Portland State had rushing last week against Washington State. It’s nearly double the yards the Cougs have had in penalty yards in their first two games. Through two games, the Trojans sit third in the Pac-12 in penalty yards, averaging 73 yards per game.

The undisciplined play from the Trojans likely played a factor in the firing of Clay Helton before he could even get to Week three.

Odds

On Tuesday, the Trojans were listed on ESPN as 8.5 point favorites and a 70.7% chance to win according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. However, that line opened closer to 10 on Saturday before the firing of Clay Helton on Monday. The over/under for the game has been set for 62.5.

Keys to Success

If the Cougs are going to pull off an upset of the Trojans on Saturday afternoon, it’s going to take some serious improvements from both sides of the ball. The Trojans can throw the ball around and we are still waiting to see the status of Cougs star cornerback Jaylen Watson, who was seen wearing a sling on his arm for the second half of the Portland State game. Without Watson to help cover a great USC receiving core and a defensive line that has failed to create any pressure against against Utah State or Portland State, Slovis may have all the time in the world to pick apart the WSU defense. The defensive line is going to have to cause some pressure if they want to stay in this game. The defense has done a fine job so far without it, but with this talented of a USC team, they’re going to need to ramp up the pressure numbers. The Trojans are also efficient at running the ball as they come into Saturday averaging 172.5 total rushing yards per game. The Cougs have allowed just 10 yards less per game at 162 on the ground which ranks just eighth in the Pac-12 and that’s just after playing Utah State and Portland State, two teams that don’t exactly have a talented running back duo like Malepeai and Ingram.

On the offensive side, it will likely be Jayden de Laura getting the start once again for the Cougs. The USC defense has yet to get a sack this year and will have to try and get around Liam Ryan and Abe Lucas on the outside. Lucas is ranked first in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation by Pro Football Focus in pass blocking through the first two week as he has yet to allow a single pressure in 81 snaps. If the interior offensive line, who has struggled to start the season, can do enough to keep de Laura upright, de Laura should have enough time to move the ball around and avoid pressure with his legs if he has to. The Trojan defense isn’t exactly setting the world on fire in the pass defense game as they’ve allowed a of 271 yards per game through the air. The running game should have a tough time being able to move the ball as the Trojans run defense, outside of a 87 yard run against Stanford, has been solid allowing only 66 yards per game without the long run from Nathaniel Peat. With the talented backfield of Max Borghi, Deon McIntosh and Nakia Watson, the Cougs should be doing alot better at running the ball than they have been in the first two weeks. 159 total rushing yards against Portland State was a good start, but they’re going to need to build off of it, especially this week against a good USC run defense.

Bottom Line

The weather also doesn’t swing in the Cougs favor. As of Friday morning, according to Apple weather, we are looking at a high of 59 degrees and a 90% chance of rain. Great for teams that can run the ball and stop the run like USC has proven capable of doing thus far.

This will be a different USC team than we were expecting to come in as it will be the interim coach Donte Williams leading the charge for the men of Troy. It certainly will add some intrigue to see how the Trojans will respond on their first road trip of the season to rainy, and now apparently home to Moose, Pullman, Washington.

It will also be a big test for Rolovich and company. Rolovich and his staff haven’t gotten a real signature win yet and they have an opportunity to do so here at home in front of what will likely be a fairly good crowd and their first nationally televised game of the year. If they can at least scrap their way into a hard-fought close battle with a talented Trojans team, it could provide some confidence in the team going forward.

Kickoff will be at 12:30 p.m. at Gesa Field on FOX.