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September 21, 2007

X&O Preview: Washington State

Well, the usual non-conference road beatdown tour will take some time off until October 20, and so the Trojans will open conference play at home against the Cougars.

This will be the first time since 2002 that SC will start the Pac-10 season at home, which is a welcome change. The Trojans have had some rough times in conference road openers under Carroll.

They lost to Oregon by a FG in 2001, fell to the Cougs in OT in 2002, got shocked by a 2-3 Cal team in 2003, trailed lowly Stanford for three quarters in 2004, trailed Oregon at the half in 2005, and only managed three points against Arizona last season. The chance to kick it off at home brings an opportunity to start fast. The average final score for SC in Pac-10 home openers since 2002: 31-16.

Washington State Offense vs USC Defense

The Cougars are a dangerous team offensively. It all starts with Alex Brink. He is not blessed with great size or a big time arm, but he has ome mobility, and most importantly, he's intelligent. He has command of this offense as he is basically a fourth year starter. He is accurate and patient. He knows when to leave the pocket, and when to stick around. The coaching staff has complete confidence in him. He was chosen second team all conference last season ahead of Cal's Nate Longshore.

As usual, WSU's offense is built on the passing game. They are a multiple formation team. You'll see some ace (one back, three WR), trips (three wideouts on one side), redskin (one back, two TEs), some shotgun, and they even ran some short shotgun against Wisconsin. They must have taken a look at Chris Ault's offenses at Nevada. They are the classic "take what you are given" team. Gone are the free wheeling days of Mike Price, when the Cougs would try to throw it deep a bunch in every game. Now they wait for opportunities to take their shots.

Michael Bumpus gets all the media love at WR, mostly because he was a one time USC verbal commit. However, Brandon Gibson is the team's best receiver. While Bumpus is quick, Gibson has better speed, and they use him to attack on the perimeter. As the slot back, Bumpus averaged less than nine and a half yards per catch last season, which is terrible.

He's a couple yards better so far this season, but Gibson averages over 15 a pop and has three TDs. He's the guy to watch. Charles Dillon is the other WR in the three wide set, and he will see some balls as well. Jed Collins is the TE/H-back. They will use him in motion to set up the run, or boot away off play action and hit him in the flat. SC does that same play a lot.

The running game is a change of pace to keep teams honest, but it is effective. Dwight Tardy is no Jerome Harrison, but he can hurt you. Chris Ivory is a similar style of back. Last season, the Cougars were very successful running the ball against USC, and they were the year before as well. Both Tardy and the departed Demaundray Woolridge averaged at least five yards per carry. Offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller did an excellent job of keeping the Trojans on their heels.

Against some teams, the Cougs will air it out and try to stretch the field. Not against the Trojans. They have showed a history of going after SC with the short passing game, and when they have had good QB performances, it has been effective. Last season they lived off short curls and outs, screen passes, and the outside stretch play. When the did stretch the field, they did it with two plays, the short corner route and fly patterns, which are meant to exploit a weakness in the cover two: the spot between the CB's and the safety's zone near the sideline.

I expect a similar gameplan from them this season, because that is the best way to attack SC's bend but don't break defense. Last year the Cougars actually outgained the Trojans, but their inability to get things done in the red zone cost them the game. Still, they were very effective.

In order to play well enough offensively to beat SC, you have to have two things. First, you need a smart and accurate quarterback who will take what is given to him by the defense. Second, you need a patient playcaller who will not try to needlessly stretch the field when things or going well with the short passing game. Washington State has both, so don't be surprised if they move the ball well against USC.

Washington State Defense vs. USC Offense

Here's the problem. The Cougars have been bad defensively so far this season, and they have only played one good team (Wisconsin), and that team went on to struggle against UNLV and the Citadel. Washington State is eighth in the conference in rush defense, pass efficiency defense, and total defense, and last in scoring defense. They have been absolutely awful on third down, allowing opponents to convert 54% of the time!

The problem is talent. The Cougars don't have any. There are no Will Dertings, Rien Longs, Mkristo Bruces, or Marcus Trufants on this defense. They no longer have that overwhelming pass rush. DE Lance Broadus had a good season last year, but he has been bothered by an injury, and he was invisible against Idaho. Greg Trent is their leading tackler, but he's nothing spectacular. Husain Abdullah is a three year starter at free safety, but he won't be cracking the All Pac-10 team this season.

In the past, WSU would put outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage and pull up their strong safety, and as a result, they had some great run defenses and pass rushes. In the glory days of 2001 and 2002, teams averaged 2.5 and 2.7 yards per carry. So far this season, opponents have averaged 3.9, and the Cougars have surrendered a Pac-10 worst five TDs on the ground. The Cougars just don't take the kind of gambles with bringing personnel up tight as they used to. Why? There are no Trufants or Jason Davids on the corners. The starters, Devin Giles and Chima Nwachukwu[db], are a sophomore and a true freshman respectively. Their strong safety is a JC transfer.

In the first game they did some experimenting with bringing up linebackers and the strong safety, probably to discourage Wisconsin from pounding them with [db]PJ Hill. QB Tyler Donovan proceeded to torch the Cougs for 224 passing yards and three TDs in the first half, so they abandoned that strategy. Since then, they have played a ton of base 4-3. Sometimes the Sam backer shades close on the strong side, but most of the time, all three backers play off the line at regular depth. This is exactly how the Cougars played SC last year.

In fact, you could count the number of times that WSU blitzed in last season's game on one hand. They preferred to play it safe, keeping the CBs at deep or middle cushions, and in a very Pete Carroll-like way, were content to just keep SC in front of them.

It didn't always work. WSU's safeties are not as fast as SC's, and Steve Smith had a field day, including several catches in the deep middle of the field. Smith ended up with 186 yards and two TDs. However, the Cougars did a good job of bottling up the SC running game, and they held the Trojans to 28 points, which allowed to stay in the game.

The operative question then becomes will WSU be content to play it safe like last year, when they tried to minimize big plays and keep SC from exploding? Or will they take more chances with blitzing as a team like UCLA did last year, banking on the notion that SC's young wide receiver corps will not be able to take advantage of some single coverage?

Final Analysis

SC fans can expect a steady diet of short curls, slants and outs from WSU, along with the requisite outside zone running and sweeps. WSU also experimented with some misdirection handoffs last season against SC, so we could see 3-5 of those as well. Don't be surprised if the Cougars have some success offensively. They have good players on that side of the ball, and a playcaller who can mix it up yet be patient at the same time. Nebraska and Idaho both showed that you can move the ball if you're patient. However, both teams combined for 20 points against the first team. That won't get it done.

I think the key to this game for the USC defense is to neutralize the running game. Brink is going to throw for some yards, but it will be a lot harder for the Cougars to inch up the field as they did in last season's game if they get some second and ten and third and seve situations. It's going to be hard to pressure Brink because the Cougs will throw the ball quick and because Brink is mobile. So the best thing that could happen for the SC defense is to keep Tardy from hurting them so that it will be completely on Brink's shoulders to move the ball. That's easier said that done though. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cougs hovering around 400 yards, just as they did last year and just as Nebraska did last week.

However, the Cougar defense is going to have a long day. I predict that they will stick to their base defense because they do not trust their young secondary, and also because I don't think they can get pressure even with their blitzing. They sure couldn't against Wisconsin when it mattered.

That leaves them with little choice but to force SC to run the ball and take the short pass. And that's what SC will do. I expect another big running game from the Trojans, but this time there will be some urgency to get the passing game on track as well. So don't expect another 300 yards on the ground. Expect about 225 with about 275 coming in the air. This is the perfect opportunity to get some confidence to the receivers because the WSU corners are so green. Look for Patrick Turner to bounce back from a poor performance in Lincoln.

The Cougars have had a rough time in LA since Pete Carroll took over. They have been beaten 43-16 and 55-13. Part of that is their uncanny knack for making a ton of mistakes on the road. Some of that has been minimized by the steady influence of Brink, but I'm expecting the Trojan defense to be coming after the ball more than usual this weekend. I think they'll force a couple of fumbles early and dominate offensively, and the second half will be little more than a scrimmage because the WSU defense just isn't good enough.

Trojans-49, Cougars-20

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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