Preview: Slovis, Helton-less Trojans enter Pullman with hopes of avoiding “Cougstock” repeat

The last time USC made a trip to Pullman, it was for a Friday night contest between two ranked teams that ended when (then freshmen) Jahad Woods sacked Sam Darnold and forced a fumble with a 1:27 left on the clock. Washington State took a couple of knees to end the game as the students and fans at the game stormed the field to celebrate the 30-27 upset win. Then-head coach Mike Leach had his own…unique take on the post game atmosphere.

Fast forward four years, and neither Mike Leach or Clay Helton are the head coaches of either program — although Leach left to take on a different job, while Clay Helton was fired on Monday — and both programs are in a far different state than they were back in 2017. Graham Harrell has USC running the air raid, while Nick Rolovich has Washington State running the run and shoot with a pair of talented senior running backs. It’s a complete change in dynamic from what the usual offensive styles are when these two programs get together.

Both programs also enter this match-up with question marks surrounding their defenses. Neither group has been particularly impressive in their first two games as they allowed offenses that had struggled in previous games (either 2020 or the first game of 2021) to wrack up yardage in losses. For the Trojans, that would be a Stanford squad that looked absolutely inept against Kansas State in week 1 and then scored 42 points while they averaged 5.6 yards on the ground despite only average 5.3 yards through the air. As for Washington State, the Cougs fourth quarter defensive collapse against Utah State was entirely predictable and not at all surprising considering the fact that they blew second half leads in two of the team’s four games in the Covid shortened 2020 season.

On the offensive side of the ball, USC is entering with a quarterback that has a ton of experience in junior Kendon Slovis. But, Slovis has not looked all that good in the first two games of 2021. In many ways, he reminds me of 2017 Luke Falk; the junior has struggled to make a quick decision as he works through his progressions and then he dumps it off to the tailback. Now part of that could be because his wide receiver corps isn’t as explosive as its been in the past…but the space is still their for him to take advantage of if he would.

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Three Players to watch

QB Washington State’s Jayden de Laura: As head coach Nick Rolovich put it, Jayden de Laura thrives in chaos and the higher tempo the Cougs ran against Portland State showed that to be true. If the game plan on Saturday can keep the quarterback comfortable and take advantage of a porous USC secondary (that gave up 6.7 yards per attempt to San Jose State) then the sophomore could have a huge game for Washington State. And that could be true even if his offensive line struggles to block the Trojans’ front seven.

WR University of Southern California’s Tahj Washington: While a lot of attention has been paid to Drake London and his ability to blow the top off of a defense, Taj Washington is going to provide a challenge for the WSU secondary. So far this season, Washington has averaged 10.3 yards per catch with one touchdown. He’s been kind of a safety blanket at the mid distance for Slovis that has helped the Trojans pick up first downs to extend drives.

RB Washington State’s Deon McIntosh: Between Max Borghi and McIntosh, the Notre Dame player has been the more aggressive. He’s had a tendency to hit holes as quickly as they’ve opened and it’s led to consistently more positive, but less explosive, plays. So far it’s lead to an average of 5.5 yards per carry and one touchdown for the senior tailback. Against a talented USC front seven that struggled to stop the run last week, McIntosh’s ability to hit the hold quickly could make all the difference for the Cougar offense.

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The prediction

This game is unlikely to develop into a blow out as both squads have shown flashes of offensive brilliance in their first two games while neither defense has been consistent enough to warrant the trust needed to believe a blow out is in the works. Since neither team particularly runs an up-tempo style of offense, the scoring won’t be quick but it will be consistent.

It’s really going to come down to which team can convert on third down, which has been an issue for Washington State as they’ve only converted on 33% of their third down attempts thus far. USC’s defense is going to make a couple of stops to force the Cougs into third and long down the stretch and that’s going to be the difference

USC 28 – WSU 24

Network: FOX

Kickoff: 12:30 PM PT

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