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Friday, September 29th 2006

Preview: Washington St.

USC ends its two game road PAC 10 road trip with a trip to Pullman, WA to face the Cougars, who are a team with a lot of interesting questions.

If nothing else, Saturday’s game against Southern California will show how much progress Washington State has made this season.

That is generally the sounds you get from the Washington St. players themselves,

“It’s a good challenge to go out against a good defense and see where our team stacks up,” Hill said. “If we play mistake-free, we can go out and play with the best of them.”

Quarterback Alex Brink said the game will show how much the Cougars learned from their bad experience at Auburn.

“It’s another opportunity along the way to show that we’re improving each week. Early on, every team has difficulties. And it’s about eliminating those inconsistencies each week,” he said.

“We got beat and got beat pretty handily, but at the same time, we played against a very quality opponent. We’ve seen speed and seen what it takes to play with a team like that. Hopefully, we’re a little more prepared, a little more mature.”

Will This Week Be Another Whupping For The Cougars?

Still despite Auburn handling the Cougars in ‘Bama Washington St. is 3 – 1 and this may be a ‘trick’ game for the Trojans.

Washington St. Offense v. USC Defense

Cougar WR Jason Hill should be on anyone’s all-American watch list. QB Alex Brink showed enough in his first year as a starter last year, that Hill was able to accumulate his second straight 1000+ yard season. Still, this year the Cougar passing game has looked lethargic against genuine competition, as Scout points out,

Brink got off to an extremely slow start in the season’s opening game at Auburn. He completed just 11 of 24 passes for 67 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Since that game, Brink has steadily improved, albeit against far inferior competition. In his last game, at Stanford, he completed 21 of 33 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns.

Brink will have to show some scrambling ability to elude the Trojan pass work and have a big game if the Cougars have any chance of winning this game.

The running back by committee has been the strongest part of this Washington St. offense. Against a fine Auburn defense (although they showed they can give up big runs in last night’s game against South Carolina), DeMaundray Woolridge gave the Cougars some hope with some tackle breaking long runs.

The trouble however is two fold for the Cougars. First, their offensive line, not very good to begin with, is stuck in limbo after two crippling injuries which will keep a starting tackle and center out for Saturday’s game against the Trojans. Second, USC has stuffed some fine rushing offenses this season, and as the Boston Herald points out in picking the Trojans, may have Sedrick Ellis back from injury,

USC already ranks sixth in the nation in total defense (217.3 yards allowed per game), ninth in rushing defense (60.7), and ninth in scoring defense (9.0 points allowed per game), so taking its play to the next level will be awesome.

And in a case of the rich getting richer, Trojans defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis, who missed two games after arthroscopic knee surgery Sept. 12, might return tomorrow night at Washington State.

Even for all the hype I’m loading onto the Washington St. running game, you need to keep in mind they’re merely the most consistent aspect of an inconsistent offense. Even the running game has had its struggles, managing just 1.5 yards per carry against lowly Baylor in a 2 point win.

They Won; Should Anything Else Matter?

Coach Carroll is exceedingly pleased with the play of Fili Moala as he’s filled in, but having Ellis back to take some snaps will simply be too much for this beat up Cougar o-line.

The Cougar’s best chance is to take shots at the Trojans secondary with speedy reciever Jason Hill and Brinks other options. The secondary is still filing around with Allen Bradford back at safety (from tailback), freshman safety Taylor Mays starting, and even LB Dallas Sartz trying his hand playing S some in practice this week.

Rivals points out the limitations to the Cougar’s passing game however,

Maybe it has to do with not having a player like Jason Gesser any more, but the staples of the Cougar passing game are bubble screens, slants, short curls, and screen passes. They have a dangerous speedster in Jason Hill, but they don’t take as many shots down the field any more.

Their QB, Alex Brink, does not have a strong arm, but he is tough, makes the reads, and can move around pretty well. He can definitely make some plays with his legs. Can he make enough with his arm? He had a bad game against USC last year.

With Coach Callahan mysteriously trying to pound the ball with his previously high flying offense two weeks ago, and the Arizona passing game just sucking, the secondary really hasn’t been tested of late, especially freshman starting safety Taylor Mays. Still, it is likely that Mays is more than ready to live up to any challenge,

One year ago, Taylor Mays was starting for O’Dea High School against Bishop Blanchet.

On Saturday, the free safety will start for USC at Washington State on national television.

It will be Mays’ third start of the season for the third-ranked Trojans (3-0, 1-0). He moved into the lineup when junior Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas in the opener.

All of that may be moot discussion. It is likely the defensive line and the nation’s best linebacking corp coming with blitz schemes will be far too much for poor Alex Brink.

Expect the run to get stuffed early for the Cougars. Expect early screens and slant plays to try to get speedster Jason Hill out “into space” and keep Alex Brink off the grass. It won’t matter, the Trojan CBs and of course the dominant linebacking corp have proven excellent fundamental tacklers in the open field. By the second half Washington St. will have to be taking some shots down field and the Trojans can probably expect at least 5 or 6 sacks this game.

USC Offense v. Washington St. Defense

USC’s offense has spoiled us in years prior. Where are the long passes, the jukie daring scampers out of the backfield, the 2 minute scoring drives? I criticized Kiffin’s lack of faith in John David Booty, in not taking more shots down field, but the more I look at it, the more I think the offense has set up the perfect game plan as this group get’s their feet under themselves.

There were so many comparisons to 2003 (Matt and Reggie’s first year in the line up), where the defense carried the team. The more and more games we see the more and more that seems true.

USC will be without all-American split end Dwayne Jarrett in Pullman. Fine, they’ll just throw in Patrick Turner.

Dwayne Jarrett Impersonator…You Won’t Even Tell The Difference

In USC’s three years of recruiting dominance one of the most imipressive things has been the abundance of WR’s who have come our way. Despite the backlog, they keep coming including former Rivals #1 wide reciever Patrick Turner and last year’s #2 prospect Vidal Hazleton (waiting should good forbid another wide out goes down).

Every week, I and others keep saying that “this is the week” that the offense opens up and takes some shots down field. Well…this might be the week.

The Cougars strength comes in a what so far has been a stifling rushing defense and a pass rush from the edges. Their best hope on the defensive side of the ball is DE Mkristo Bruce who has racked up 7 sacks in just three games (5 of those against Stanford’s offensively horrible line).

I have little respect for the Cougar secondary. JDB threw his first interception last week, when he stared down his reciever. What he hasn’t done is shown panic under pressure. Even if the Cougar’s blitzing schemes (and you can expect plenty of that) or Bruce get to JDB once or twice I think we can expect him to keep his cool.

For the ability to stuff the run shown against Idaho and Stanford the Cougars gave up better than 6 yards per carry and nearly 300 yards on the ground to Kenny Irons and company. Emmanuel Moody showed some surprising running last week. He has emerged as the back for the Trojans, despite Chauncey Washington finally starting to get healthy.

On Tuesday, Washington worked out in the morning to improve his conditioning and burst.

“I have to get my endurance up,” he said before the afternoon practice. “The leg is not hurting anymore. Now I can get it stronger.”

The sooner the better, according to Carroll.

“It’s really important for Chauncey to come back and be a big factor,” he said. “When we have been at our best offensively, we have always had an aggressive running tailback, a guy that can bring it downhill.”

Moody danced around too much in the backfield going east and west but what stunned me is the determination the small back had. On multiple occasions versus the Wildcats last week, Moody drove defends for extra yards. Who needs a big back?

To be honest, I don’t expect Washington St. to get even as much penetration as Arizona managed. There has been talk of using more two tight end sets, and using a tight end as a kind’ve H-back since the fullback position has kind’ve imploded for USC with several horrific gruesome injuries (a terrible looking broken ankle and then Havili’s broken fibula).

USC is going to have its way with this Cougar defense. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, expect some early shots downfield on Saturday against a weak Cougar secondary. Especially if the offensive line and backs show they’re handling the Cougar blitz (which is going to come) early.

Rivals doesn’t tend to agree,

This Cougar defense may present the toughest test to USC’s hope for a balanced offense we’ve seen yet. They’re not easy to run against. The big question is: Are the Cougs’ defensive backs susceptible to the big play against a good passing attack? USC must answer that question early.

I think they’re giving too much credit to this Cougar run defense. The pass rush may be the Cougars greatest hope for making a game of this contest. They need to force turnovers. But like I said, if John David Booty has proven one thing this season it is that he is gifted with a cool head.

However, I agree with Rivals that even with Jarrett the biggest mismatch on the field may be the Cougar’s corners versus Smith and Turner for the Trojans. Such is why I expect some passing yards under Booty’s belt come Saturday.

Other Stuff

There’s rumors floating around that on Game Day (the show) tomorrow Herbstriet will pick the Washington St. upset. Kirk is one of my favorite TV pundits, but this season his predictions haven’t been so hot – he had Miami and Notre Dame playing for the national championship at season’s beginning.

Other than that, as can be expected, most voices are calling for a USC victory including that Boston Herald piece and College Football New’s predictions.

In my week five picks I’m not taking the points for this game, but expect this to be a two score game.

USC 34 – Washington St. 21