First look: Washington State heads to Los Angeles for marquee matchup with No. 6 USC

Oct. 4—What is it? Washington State (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12), coming off a smooth win over Cal, travels to Southern California hoping to pull off an upset victory against the USC Trojans (5-0, 3-0) — the front-runners in the Pac-12 and the sixth-ranked team in the nation.

Where is it? After a three-game homestand, WSU hits the road for its second away game of the year. The Cougars will face the Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where can I watch it? WSU will be playing in front of a national TV audience for the third time this season. FOX will carry the broadcast. The network also televised the Cougars' Sept. 10 game at Wisconsin and a Sept. 24 matchup at home versus Oregon.

Who is favored? The Trojans opened as 14-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU rebounded after a 44-41 loss to Oregon on Sept. 24. The Cougars' defense bottled up Cal and WSU's offense found a rhythm late to close out a 28-9 victory at Gesa Field.

Quarterback Cameron Ward shook off two red-zone interceptions and led back-to-back scoring possessions in the fourth quarter to put the game away. The Cougars tallied 21 points and 312 yards in the second half. They were held to seven points and 103 yards in the first half.

"It's still a battle of consistency of (finding ) what we're capable of doing offensively," WSU coach Jake Dickert said Monday. "I thought the offensive line — after probably the first two series last week — really settled in and I thought they did an efficient, good job. It's going to be (about) the turnovers and being more consistent."

WSU's defense bounced back after an uncharacteristically shaky showing versus Oregon. The Cougars produced four sacks Saturday, forced nine Golden Bear punts and limited downfield passing plays.

"I loved our response in the passing game, defending the pass," Dickert said. "That's exactly what we're gonna have to have this week. We can't have explosive passing plays going against us, because (USC) can score in a hurry. We gotta make sure, especially at the defensive back positions, that communication is high and we're keeping the ball in front."

Heavily favored USC pulled away in the second half for a 42-25 win Saturday over Arizona State.

Standout Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams passed for 348 yards and three touchdowns and USC's defense logged five sacks, stifling ASU after halftime. The Sun Devils were outscored 21-8 and limited to 113 yards in the second half.

USC has routed four of its five opponents this season. The Trojans were given a scare on Sept. 24 at Oregon State, but scored a go-ahead touchdown with about a minute remaining to eke out a 17-14 win.

Scouting the opponent: USC was looking to turn itself into a winner quickly when the program scooped coach Lincoln Riley out of Oklahoma this offseason. That splash hire seems to be paying off.

So far, USC is living up to the grand expectations that surrounded it coming into the season. The Trojans are the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12.

USC took advantage of the NCAA transfer portal to assemble a superpowered offense, headlined by Williams, who followed Riley out of OU. Williams is one of the nation's most efficient quarterbacks. He has passed for 1,402 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception on a 67.2% completion rate. He threw his first pick last week.

"Shut him down, that's not gonna happen — we gotta work to control it," Dickert said of Williams, a second-year collegian.

Williams has been contained in just one game this season. Oregon State used pressure (11 QB hurries) to disrupt his flow. Williams completed 16 of 36 passes for 180 yards and rushed for 27 yards on nine carries.

"(The Beavers) controlled him very well, keeping things in front and being smart ... when he scrambled," Dickert said. "You don't shut down anybody that is this caliber. Hopefully, you can get some hits on him when he runs. You gotta affect him and not let him be on his spots, but you can't let him get out and beat you off of deep scramble plays. ... It's a unique challenge and we need to be at our best Saturday to win this game."

Williams might be the Pac-12's best quarterback. He is joined in the backfield by one of the conference's premier running backs, and his favorite receiving target is one of the best pass-catchers in the FBS. Jordan Addison, who claimed the Fred Biletnikoff Award (given to the nation's top receiver) last year at Pitt, has 442 receiving yards and six touchdowns through his first five games as a Trojan. USC tailback Travis Dye, who shined at Oregon over the past four years, has run for 422 yards and five touchdowns this season, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

"They got threats everywhere," Dickert said. "They got one of the best quarterbacks in the country. They got three of the best receivers in the country. They got one of best offensive lines in the country and a first-team all-conference tailback."

The Trojans have committed only one turnover this season. WSU's defense has forced seven takeaways. The Cougars collected 29 turnovers last season.

"They've been unbelievable — just one turnover all year, and just the last game," Dickert said. "That shows the type of level they've been operating at offensively. We gotta find a way to get a takeaway. That'll be a big part of this game. ... We gotta pick and choose our spots to be aggressive."

USC strikes a nearly even balance between the ground game and passing attack. The Trojans rank 22nd nationally in passing offense and 43rd in rushing offense. They also boast the No. 10 scoring offense in the country (42.2 points per game).

WSU's defense should offer resistance. The Cougs rank 19th nationally in rushing defense (96.2 yards per game) and 25th in scoring defense (19.6 ppg). USC's pass-protection has shown flaws at times, surrendering 11 sacks this year. WSU, the No. 7 team in the FBS with 18 sacks, could have a favorable matchup or two up front.

While USC's offense is capturing much of the attention, the Trojans' defense has been almost equally effective. USC is tied for first in the nation with 15 turnovers forced (12 interceptions) and ranks fifth with 19 sacks.

"Phenomenal," Dickert said of USC's defense. "This isn't just a one-sided deal."

A steadily improving WSU passing game will be up against a USC defense that sits 14th in the FBS in coverage efficiency. The Cougar offense has been sharp in the red zone, scoring on 95.2% of opportunities (11th nationally). USC enjoys the nation's third-most effective red-zone defense, which has allowed scores on 60% of red-zone chances.

"Our guys are excited for the challenge," Dickert said. "We'll have a great game plan. These are the weeks where everyone understands what's at stake. Everyone understands the challenge. Everyone understands going into this environment and playing big-time football. That's also why our guys are here.

"They're excited for it. We're gonna be ready. The effort level and excitement is gonna be huge, but it still comes down to us executing."

What happened last time? USC, less than a week after firing coach Clay Helton, came to Pullman with an interim coach on Sept. 18, 2021, and used an inspired second-half performance to race past the Cougars 45-14. WSU led 14-7 at the half, but the Trojans outscored the hosts 38-0 after the break. USC true freshman backup quarterback Jaxson Dart, who entered in relief of injured starter Kedon Slovis in the first quarter, threw for 391 yards. WSU QB Jayden de Laura went down with an injury late in the first half.

Things to know:

1. Riley comes from the Air Raid coaching tree. He played quarterback at Texas Tech in the early 2000s under coach Mike Leach — a pioneer of the offensive system and WSU's head coach from 2012 to 2019. Riley served as an assistant, working with receivers, on Leach's Red Raiders staff from 2003 to '09. WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris played receiver at Texas Tech under Riley and Leach in the mid-2000s. Morris' Air Raid and Riley's version of the system are "very different," Dickert noted.

"I was surprised when I turned on the tape," he said. "USC's is way more of a 50-50 run/pass split. ... We're about 70-30 right now."

2. USC's staff has deep ties to WSU. Dave Emerick, the Trojans' senior associated athletic director for football, was Leach's chief of staff throughout the coach's successful tenure in Pullman. USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch worked in the same role at WSU for three seasons (2015-17). Trojans outside linebackers coach Roy Manning coached Cougar edge rushers under Grinch. USC outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons oversaw the same position group at WSU (2012-14). Brian Odom, a USC LBs coach, served in a quality control role at WSU (2015-16). Peyton Pelluer, a former Cougar linebacker (2014-18) and program record-setter with 54 career games, is a defensive grad assistant at USC. Another former WSU linebacker, Parker Henry (2013-16), is a defensive analyst with the Trojans.

3. Several Cougar staffers spent time at USC. Offensive line coach Clay McGuire mentored the Trojans' O-linemen last season. Head strength and conditioning coach Dwain Bradshaw worked on USC's strength staff in 2017. Quality control assistant Dan Ferrigno coached Trojan receivers and special teams in 2000. Justin Mesa, a WSU quality control staffer, spent six years on USC's staff (2007-12), helping out with various positions.

4. USC leads the series 62-10-4. USC is on a three-game winning streak over the Cougars, whose most recent win in the series came in 2017 — when 16th-ranked WSU topped No. 5 USC on a wild night in Pullman. That 30-27 win is WSU's most recent victory over a top-10 team. The Cougars haven't claimed a true road win over a top-10 team since defeating No. 10 Oregon 55-16 in 2003. The Trojans are 40-6-2 at home against WSU, which hasn't won in the Coliseum since a 10-7 decision in 2013.

5. The Cougars and Trojans aren't scheduled to play next season, and USC will be leaving for the Big Ten Conference in 2024 — along with UCLA. So, Saturday's WSU/USC matchup will be the final Pac-12 contest between the teams — and it's uncertain when/if they will meet again.

6. WSU's roster features 31 players from Southern California, including five who list Los Angeles as their hometown — receiver Renard Bell, linebacker Daiyan Henley, safety Jordan Lee, defensive tackle Ahmir Crowder and linebacker Buddah Al-Uqdah.

"I can't wait for that one," Bell said of the USC game during a preseason interview. "I have preexisting hate from before I came to college. (USC is) five minutes from my house."