No. 6 USC can’t afford to overlook Washington State

LOS ANGELES — The past two weeks, No. 6 USC has continued its undefeated start to 2022, improving to 5-0. But the Trojans hardly made the jobs look easy.

Against Oregon State, USC’s offense was a shadow of itself as it adjusted to a hostile road environment for the first time. Against Arizona State, the Trojans’ energy and execution levels were a bit off and allowed the Sun Devils to stick around through the first half.

Maybe it was carryover from practice habits, as running back Travis Dye suggested. Or an easing off the gas as wins have piled up.

But to head coach Lincoln Riley, it’s a sign his new program remains a work in progress amid his first season.

“It’s a daily fight. I mean, it is,” Riley said. “I use the word ‘fight’ because that’s just the only way you get better.”

USC’s next chance to fight and improve comes Saturday at the Coliseum against Washington State (4-1). The Cougars are a formidable foe with a defense that holds opponents to 18.2 points per game.

It’s not the type of game that USC can afford to take for granted, or overlook with next week’s high-profile matchup with Utah looming.

So Riley, along with veterans on the team like Dye, are trying to impress upon the locker room that winning does not come easy, and it can’t be assumed.

“It’s a process to understand that, right? There’s some of it you can learn before and we try to pack as much as that in as we possibly can. There’s some it, it’s not going to take hold until you actually get in some of these situations as a team and individually,” Riley said. “You’ve got to strain and you’ve got to be ready to fight every single week.”

When Washington State has the ball

The Cougars have an imbalanced offense. Washington State is last in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (91.8) and instead relies on 289 passing yards per contest (fifth-best in conference).

Quarterback Cameron Ward has a high completion rate at 68.6% and has thrown 13 touchdowns. But his seven interceptions this season are tied for third-most in the country.

That’s an area USC can exploit. The Trojans remain first in the country with 15 forced turnovers and 12 interceptions.

But for an offense like USC’s, which has been vulnerable to giving up big plays, the Trojans have to be wary against the Cougars. Washington State has six pass catchers averaging at least 11 yards per reception this season.

When USC has the ball

The big matchup to watch is USC’s offensive line against the Cougars’ pass rush. Washington State’s defense is similar to USC’s in that it is aggressive with its blitz packages and gets a lot of push into opposing backfields. USC would benefit if starting right guard Justin Dedich is able to return after missing last week’s game against Arizona State with an injury.

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But whether the offensive line is at full health or not, USC will need to get creative with its run game to balance out the offense. Last week was USC’s worst rushing performance of the season, and Riley will need to get that part of the offense back on track to take pressure off quarterback Caleb Williams.

Maybe it involves sweeps with receiver Jordan Addison, or some creative uses of the shifty freshman Raleek Brown. But USC will need some balance to keep its offense on the field and put pressure on Washington State to keep up with the Trojans’ scoring.

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