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October 16, 2008

Game 6: Road to Nowhere

After a two-game homestand, USC travels to the Pac-10's most remote outpost to find a troubled Washington State team that is merely trying to survive one of its roughest seasons ever.

The USC Trojans (4-1, 2-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 4 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 6 by the Associated Press (AP), continue their 2008 Pac-10 schedule Saturday, October 18, against the Washington State Cougars (1-6, 0-4) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., and in front of a national Fox Sports Net cable TV audience. It is the 68th meeting between the Trojans and Cougars, with USC holding a dominating 55-8-4 edge. A season ago, the Trojans hammered Washington State, 47-14, at the Coliseum, notching their fifth consecutive victory over the Cougars. In the previous meeting in Pullman in 2006, USC held off a late Cougar rally, 28-22.

A week ago, the Trojans won their second consecutive game as a dominating defensive effort helped offset an uneven offensive performance in a 28-0 drubbing of the Arizona State Sun Devils. Though the Trojans turned the ball over five times - including on four consecutive possessions to open the second half - USC's defense recorded four takeaways of their own and thwarted the Sun Devils twice deep in Trojan territory. Meanwhile, the Cougars allowed more than 60 points to their third Pac-10 opponent, losing at Oregon State 66-13. Washington State is allowing an average of 51 points per game to its Division I-A opponents and only UCLA, which defeated the Cougars 28-3 on October 4, has failed to pass the 60-point plateau among Wazzu's Pac-10 opponents thus far.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (80-15, 51-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Washington State headman Paul Wulff (1-6 at WSU, 54-46 in his ninth season as a college head coach) returned to his alma mater this season after eight successful seasons at lower-division Eastern Washington. However, Wulff's hopes of installing his successful no-huddle, spread attack in Pullman have been hampered by massive player turnover and a slew of injuries (23 Cougars have made their first collegiate start during the 2007 season) that could end up with the Cougars' fourth-string quarterback starting this weekend.

Washington State Offense
For the fourth consecutive week, the Trojans will face an offense that operates most often out of a three-receiver, single-back set. However, under offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, who also worked under Wulff at Eastern Washington and replaced Mike Levenseller (who remains on staff as wide receivers coach), the Cougar offense has yet to gain any traction. WSU ranks at or near the bottom of the conference's rankings in every offensive category (the Cougars are in the bottom 10 nationally in every offensive category except passing offense, where they rank No. 94 of 119 teams). A bevy of new players and a debilitating set of injuries have set back the Wazzu attack. Nowhere has this been more apparent than at quarterback, where starter Gary Rogers is out for the remainder of the season with a spinal fracture against Portland State. Second-stringer Kevin Lopina, who actually took over starting duties in the third week of the season after Rogers suffered an earlier injury, was also lost during the Portland State game. Third-stringer Marshall Lobbestael, a redshirt freshman, started the past three games, but suffered a season-ending knee injury at Oregon State. The Cougars hope to have Lopina back for this weekend's game, but if he's unable to go - or to finish - the next option is true freshman JT Levenseller. The injury bug actually got so bad at quarterback for the Cougars that Wulff held an open tryout on Oct. 6 for a scout team quarterback.

Whoever starts Saturday will be fortunate enough to throw to an all-conference quality wideout in steady senior Brandon Gibson. His 38 catches are more than twice as many as any other Cougar receiver. Speedy sophomore Jeshua Anderson has earned his way into a starting role with 17 catches, while classmate Daniel Blackledge is the third starter (he has eight grabs). Injuries have hurt the Cougars at tight end, as well, where reliable senior Devin Frischknecht who is third on the team with 13 catches, went down last week with a high ankle sprain. Senior Ben Woodard, a part-time starter but a less reliable target, figures to see much time at the spot this week.

The story is much the same in the rushing attack, where injuries have hampered the Cougars' development. Wazzu averages less than 98 yards per game on the ground and three different Cougars have started in the single-back spot. Junior Dwight Tardy, the most experienced of the trio, missed last week's game with an injury, but is listed atop this week's depth chart. He has 300 yards in 2008, but only averages 3.6 yards per carry. Junior Chantz Staden, who has started twice this season, should get some carries as well. Junior Chris Ivory, who missed the Oregon State game with an injury, appears to be out this week as well.

Injuries and inexperience in the front five have to garner their share of the blame for the Cougars' poor performance this season. WSU has started five different line combinations in seven games - and with senior LT Vaughn Lesuma suffering a shoulder injury in Corvallis last Saturday, that number figures to become six in eight. This week's depth chart shows redshirt freshman Will Hunter and sophomore Joe Eppele set to share duties at left tackle, while sophomore Andrew Roxas makes his fifth start at left guard. Junior center Kenny Alfred, sophomore RG Brian Danaher and sophomore RT Micah Hannam have started all seven games in 2008, though Danaher is being pushed by redshirt freshman B.J. Guerra.

Washington State Defense
The Cougar defense, while statistically not as troubled as their counterparts on the offensive side, has had trouble stopping just about any Division I-A opponent. Only lower division Portland State failed to have a solid outing, with the Cougars' best defensive day against top-line competition coming against UCLA - in a 28-3 loss. Co-defensive coordinators Chris Ball and Jody Sears (who also share responsibility for the WSU secondary) have seen their group put in bad positions time and again by an offense that is averaging three turnovers per game and poor special teams play.

There is some experience in the front four, but it hasn't translated to success as the Cougars allow more than 250 yards rushing per game and have only six sacks all season. Junior Kevin Kooyman had a career-high seven tackles a week ago from his left end spot. Senior right end Matt Mullenix has 21 total tackles and a sack - and can play a tackle spot in a pinch. Senior Mike Graise and junior Andy Mattingly also rotate into the action. In the middle, seniors A'i Ahmu and Matt Eichelberger have 32 combined tackles.

Senior Greg Trent is the unquestioned leader of the Wazzu defense. He leads the team with 46 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. He's started 31 consecutive games for the Cougars and is one of those guys you hate to see suffer through such a rough season - he plays all out, all day long. He's joined outside by emerging freshman Louis Bland, who has started the past three games, taking over for senior Kendrick Dunn. He has 20 tackles and had an interception for a touchdown last weekend. On the other side, sophomore Myron Beck has 26 stops, but is just about as green as Bland. Senior Cory Evans, who began the season as a starter, is also likely to see time.

The Cougars are also very young at cornerback, where redshirt freshman Tyrone Justin and sophomore Romeo Pellum start. Pellum has 32 tackles, good for third on the team, just behind junior free safety Xavier Hicks Jr., who has 33 tackles and two interceptions. At strong safety, senior Alfonso Jackson is undersized, but took over the spot from sophomore Chima Nwachukwu after the Baylor game. Senior corner Markus Dawes and junior corner Devin Giles are likely to appear in nickel situations.

Washington State Special Teams
The Cougars' kicking units are experiencing mixed results, at best. Sophomore placekicker Nico Grasu is five-of-seven on field goals, with a long of 47 and he hasn't missed from closer than 42 yards. Junior Patrick Rooney has been so-so, knocking six touchbacks in 27 kicks, but opponents are averaging more than 26 yards per return. Sophomore Reid Forrest has struggled mightily, as the Cougars' net punting of less than 32.5 yards per boot is last in the conference. Opponents are averaging more than 11 yards per return. Running back Staden handles most kickoffs and punts and has been average at best.

USC Offensive Gameplan
After last weekend's struggling offensive performance against Arizona State, can you expect USC to dominate the Cougar defense as most opponents have so far in 2008? You'd hope so, considering that Mark Sanchez should be healthier this week - even if some other offensive weapons are not. It's pretty clear that Sanchez's timing was off for much of the ASU match-up, likely due to him missing much practice time a week ago while recovering from a bone bruise in his knee suffered against Oregon.

However, the spotlight again must return to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, as well. Against the Sun Devils, the Trojan offense struggled to get much of anything going after its first drive, and while execution problems are partly to blame, so too are the at-times confusing strategic decisions made by the offensive staff. Is there such a thing as too much available talent? The question bears repeating as the USC offensive gameplan's biggest resurfacing problem is connecting the best personnel available with the play called.

Fortunately for USC, Joe McKnight chose last Saturday to have his best effort as a running back in 2008. Unfortunately, he appears to be very questionable for Saturday with a toe injury suffered on his final carry against the Sun Devils. Should that matter against WSU? No. The Trojans are likely to have their way against the injured, inexperienced and not overly athletic Cougars. USC should be able to run for big numbers against a smallish Wazzu front seven, and Sanchez's growing receiving weapons - Damian Williams, Ronald Johnson and Patrick Turner - should be able to find room and out-physical their counterparts in the Cougar secondary.

USC Defensive Gameplan
After their one-half hiccup against Oregon State, USC's defense has gotten right back on track against Oregon and Arizona State. Outside the debacle in Corvallis, USC has allowed 20 points in the other four games - a truly stellar effort considering all four opponents were from BCS conferences and played in bowl games a year ago. Heading into Pullman, injuries are a concern, however, with linebackers Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava possibly sitting out this Saturday's contest. Will it matter with USC facing the worst offensive team in recent Pac-10 history?

Well, it certainly shouldn't. Actually, this should be the perfect opportunity for the Trojans to get some solid game experience for linebackers Malcolm Smith, Michael Morgan and Chris Galippo. Expect USC to rotate in a number of players early on at all defensive spots, with players like Kyle Moore, Rey Maualuga and Kevin Ellison remaining stalwarts until the Trojans build their expected lead. Speaking of Ellison, if this guy isn't a consensus All-America at season's end, people are simply not paying attention. On a defense full of physical specimens, it is Ellison's headiness and physicality that have made him the Trojans' top defender.

WSU's rushing attack is anemic and their passing attack may actually be in worse shape were it not for Gibson lining up on every down. Expect USC to push around the Cougar offensive line early and often. You may see more than one Wazzu quarterback, and it's unlikely the Cougs will make any consistent gains on the ground.

The Pick
While the Trojans are favored by a couple more points on Saturday than they were in the infamous Stanford game a year ago, that's about where the similarities end. The Cougars are so completely outmanned in this game that USC could show up and play similarly to their performance in Corvallis a few weeks ago - and likely win by three touchdowns.

Because of that, however, the Trojans would do well for themselves to bring some serious focus and intensity right off the bat and put the Cougars down early. If USC wants to maintain its hopes for a BCS title game berth, a simple 28-point win won't suffice this week. People across the nation know that Washington State has given up 60+ points three times this season. If the Trojans don't put up at least a half-a-hundred Saturday, they open themselves up to more scrutiny by the media pundits that help decide who "deserves" to play for the crystal football.

That said, expect the Trojans to hang more than 50 on the Cougars, and likely cover the spread.

USC 56, Washington State 3

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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