USC TROJANS (4-0)
at WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS (4-0)
Martin Stadium – Pullman, WA
Kickoff: Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET
Line: USC -4, Total: NA
#5 USC will be on upset alert when the team takes on #16 Washington State in Pullman.
Since the Trojans entered the season among the favorites to make the College Football Playoff this season, a downside of the hype is that they have not played as well as their 4-0 record suggests they have. Their 1-3 ATS record, on the other hand, accurately represents what has been something of a slow start to the season. A 49-31 season-opening win over Western Michigan (WMU +28) was closer than its final score for much of the afternoon, a 27-24 win over Texas (UT +16.5) came over a team that gave up 51 points to Maryland at home, and, most recently, a 30-20 win at Cal (CAL +17) was just generally uninspiring. In Week 2, though, USC did have a 42-24 win over Stanford (USC -3.5) in which we got a glimpse of their full potential. This week, the Trojans travel to play undefeated Washington State (2-2 ATS) on Friday night. The Cougars have three blowout wins this year, and in Week 2 kept East Coast college football fans up until the early hours of the morning with a crazy 47-44 win over Boise State in triple overtime (BSU +7). Over the last 10 seasons, underdogs of 3.5 to 10 points that are averaging at least 16.0 PPG in first halves (WSU) are 49-17 ATS after scoring at least 42 points in two straight games. On the other hand, in the same timeframe, road teams coming off of two consecutive ATS losses (USC) are 38-12 ATS in games involving two teams with winning percentages of .800 or higher. Star USC RB Ronald Jones III missed the game against Cal and is questionable for Friday night. WR Steven Mitchell Jr. and DE Porter Gustin also missed the game last weekend and are questionable.
Just as his team began the year burdened with championship aspirations, USC QB Sam Darnold (67.1 CMP%, 1,225 yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs) came into 2017 as a Heisman favorite and as the prohibitive favorite to be selected first overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. While he certainly hasn't played himself out of candidacy for either distinction, he has plenty of room to improve. Specifically, he needs to cut down on the turnovers. He was merely decent against Cal, completing 26 of 38 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns, but also throwing an interception. He certainly wasn't helped much by his offensive line, which left him scrambling from Bears defenders for much of the game. Jones (59 carries, 322 yards, 5 TDs; 3 catches, 85 yards, TD) is one of the best backs in the nation, and the Trojans are obviously worse off without him on the field. Of course, USC always has plenty of talent, and RB Stephen Carr (47 carries, 298 yards, 3 TDs; 13 catches, 130 yards) emerged as the offensive MVP in the Cal game. He carried the ball 20 times for 82 yards and a critical fourth-quarter touchdown, while also catching six balls for 47 yards. Darnold has an elite target in WR Deontay Burnett (33 catches, 462 yards, 5 TDs), who is fifth in the nation in receptions and seventh in receiving yards. Mitchell (14 catches, 223 yards, 2 TDs) is the No. 2, and his presence will be imperative going forward as Darnold looks to get into a week-to-week rhythm. The Trojan defense forced six turnovers against Cal. While it's certainly a top-notch unit, that's not a sustainable output for the offense to rely on.
It should tell you everything you need to know about Mike Leach's offense that, despite the fact that WSU backup QB Tyler Hilinski has already attempted 54 passes this season, starting QB Luke Falk (76.9 CMP%, 1,378 yards, 14 TDs, INT) is still fifth in the nation in passing yards. Leach, of course, has a history of coaching statistical marvels at the position, but Falk might be the best talent of all of them. The time he yielded to Hilinski was largely in the tight win over Boise State, though, showing that the offense can get along without him. He was as explosive as always in a 45-7 win over Nevada last week (WSU -28.5), completing 36 of 47 passes for 478 yards and five touchdowns. If he were to engineer an upset win over USC this week, he would likely find his name somewhere atop the Heisman conversation as the signal-caller of a 5-0 team. As is characteristic of a Leach quarterback, Falk spreads the ball around—five receivers have over 150 yards. Junior WR Tavares Martin Jr. (26 catches, 390 yards, 6 TDs) is the clear No. 1, though, and he displayed dominance downfield against the Wolfpack with 114 yards and two touchdowns on only four catches. Freshman WR Renard Bell (14 catches, 228 yards) put up a similar stat line, catching four balls for 113 yards. Bell also was excellent in the Boise State win, catching seven balls for 107 yards in that one. RB James Williams (37 carries, 148 yards, TD; 37 catches, 266 yards, 3 TDs) is frequently targeted in the short field, and WR Isaiah Johnson-Mack (24 catches, 236 yards, 2 TDs) has seen his role increase after he put up 246 receiving yards as a freshman last year. When the Cougars choose to run, they're quite solid. Williams has gotten the most carries on the year, but senior RB Jamal Morrow (28 carries, 193 yards, TD; 13 catches, 86 yards, 3 TDs) has more yards on the ground. Morrow had 11 carries against Nevada, while Williams had nine. Both will continue to see steady handoffs as well as targets in the passing game.