by Garry Paskwietz
There will be a lot at stake on Saturday when the Trojans travel to Seattle to take on the Huskies.
First of all, it’s good to be able to type that considering where things were earlier in the season, because when the Trojans were sitting at 1-3 there were no guarantees that this game would mean this much, both on and off the field.
From a practical standpoint, both teams are still alive for a berth in the conference title game, with the Huskies controlling their own destiny and even pushing for a potential spot in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans will need help from others if they hope to reach the Pac-12 title game for the second straight year but, first things first, they would need to beat the Dawgs to have any further chance of that happening.
Right alongside the practical element of staying alive for post-season play, there is the intangible factor of this game providing another measuring stick for where the Trojan program is at right now.
There was already one measuring stick test this year, in the season opener against Alabama, and no Trojan fan liked the results from that test. But now here comes another opportunity, and it comes with a lot of momentum based upon a five-game win streak and improved play in so many areas of the team, led by the insertion of Sam Darnold at quarterback and the impact his play has had across the board.
This hasn’t been a case of Darnold coming in and simply handling his role, it’s an energy level that has spread through the entire team and resulted in five straight games of 300 yards or more by the offense, and five straight games defensively of holding an opponent to their lowest point total of the season.
The test for this game, however, is to find out how real this recent Trojan resurgence has been. There’s no doubt the results have been impressive, but how much do you factor in the opponents that have been faced in recent weeks, many of which have put defenses on the field that rank among the worst in college football?
It certainly won’t be the case against Washington as the Huskies are riding high with a 9-0 record in the third year under coach Chris Petersen, while featuring both the top scoring offense and defense in the conference. USC coach Clay Helton said that Washington has “earned every bit” of the recognition they’ve received this season with their solid play, even while early-season wins against teams like Stanford and Oregon may not carry as much weight as they did when the games were played.
Regardless of how strong the common opponents may or may not have been, there are many who think the Huskies and Trojans are the two most talented teams in the conference and the on-field match-ups should be a lot of fun to watch.
The Huskies bring a lot of firepower to the table offensively led by sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, who leads the nation in passing efficiency and touchdown passes (34 TD’s and only 2 picks) and he has a quality running back in Myles Gaskin along with a pair of explosive playmakers at receiver in John Ross and Dante Pettis. Ross is #2 in the nation with 14 touchdown catches and both players (Ross for punt returns, Pettis for kickoff returns) are the school career leaders in returns for touchdowns. The Trojans have done a good job defensively in getting pressure on quarterbacks to throw them off rhythm and it will be very important to continue that against Browning.
Defensively the Huskies are solid as well. They are first in the nation in turnover margin, and are ranked in the top 25 in 7 other defensive categories. They are particularly strong against the pass with a secondary that includes safety Budda Baker and corner Sidney Jones, while the leading tackler is linebacker Victor Azeem.
One area to watch could be the pass rush for the Huskies, who have a trio of 300-pounders on the line but one player who will not be available in this game is edge rusher Joe Mathis, who has missed the last 3 games with a foot injury and it was announced this week that he will undergo surgery and be out for the rest of the season. This is a blow for the Dawgs as Mathis was leading the team in sacks, and his presence has been missed. Washington had 24 sacks in the six games with Mathis on the field but only 3 sacks in the three games without him.
Another element of the game that Helton and the Trojans will be paying a lot of attention to is penalties, which have been an issue for USC in several games this season, and it figures there won’t be much of a margin for error when playing a team like Washington that can take advantage of self-inflicted mistakes. Of course, it’s also true that the Trojans will offer the fastest and strongest opponent that Washington has faced to date, and that is part of what makes this match-up so enticing.