On paper, the USC offense appears set to face its most difficult matchup of the season against Washington State. The Cougars rank 26th in the country in scoring defense at 18.2 points per game, better than any team USC has faced so far by a pretty large margin. In comparison, Fresno State is the toughest defense by points per game that USC has faced so far at 26.5 points per game, just 74th in the country.
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ESPN’s SP+ rankings are also high on the Cougars’ defense, putting them at 29th in the country, compared to USC at 58th. Head coach Jake Dickert’s defense has particularly succeeded in stopping the run, holding opponents under 100 rushing yards per game and three yards per carry, both top-20 marks in the nation. Washington State has even held three of its five opponents to 1.8 yards per carry or less.
The Cougars’ pass rush has also been impressive on paper through their first five games. Their 18 sacks rank seventh in the country, right behind USC’s 19.
But let’s take a closer look at those stats.
Starting with the pass rush, the sacks are a little misleading. Seven of those 18 came against FCS opponent Idaho, in a game Washington State only won by a touchdown. When you look at the Cougars’ four other games, they have a sack rate of 7.5%, which is a still respectable but less impressive figure.
USC’s pass blocking hasn’t been stellar this year, and it would feel like much more of an issue if quarterback Caleb Williams wasn’t a sack-avoiding wizard.
However, this group could be regaining an important piece this week. USC head coach Lincoln Riley said Thursday that right guard Justin Dedich will be a game-time decision against Washington State. Dedich missed last week’s game against Arizona State, so he would be an important addition back to an offensive line that’s also dealing with ongoing injury issues at left tackle.
Continuing to take a look at the Cougars’ schedule, they haven’t exactly faced very dynamic offenses thus far into the season. Their other three wins have come against 0-5 Colorado State (maybe the worst team in the FBS), 2-3 Wisconsin (who just fired its head coach), and 3-2 Cal (93rd in points per game, 105th in offensive SP+). Not exactly a murderer’s row of offenses this season.
The one other game Washington State has played was against Oregon, which ranks 9th in SP+ and 16th in points per game. The Ducks offense isn’t that dissimilar to USC: playmaking quarterback, explosive backfield options, and depth at receiver.
And what happened in that game? The Cougars surrendered 624 yards of offense on 8.1 yards per play and 44 points.
Don’t get me wrong, I like what Dickert has built up in Pullman in a fairly short amount of time. But the Cougars’ secondary, which is allowing over 275 passing yards per game and a 67.8% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, shouldn’t scare Williams or Riley much.
After Oregon’s Troy Franklin went off for five catches, 137 yards, and a touchdown against the Cougars two weeks ago, I expect a similar stat line on Saturday for USC’s Jordan Addison. The reigning Biletnikoff winner should be able to stretch the field for the Trojans, which in turn could open up the run game as well. While Washington State’s offense should still keep this game close, don’t anticipate the USC offense to struggle too much on Saturday.