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O/NSO: Washington edition

By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

The Obvious: College Football Playoff’s No. 20 USC Trojans (6-3, 5-2 Pac-12 South) will confront their moment of truth this Saturday afternoon in Seattle, as the Cardinal and Gold venture into the Great Northwest for a huge Pac-12 showdown with the No. 4 (CFP) Washington Huskies (9-0, 6-0 Pac-12 North) in Husky Stadium (4:30 p.m. PT/FOX).

The Not So Obvious: It will be extremely challenging for the Trojans not only because Washington is a well-coach team with a lot of talent, but the Huskies play in a stadium that’s even louder and more foreboding after its massive renovation that ended in 2013. With the O/NSO having been to the “old” Husky Stadium, we can tell you it rivaled Oregon’s Autzen Stadium in noise and intimidation. The “new” stadium is like old noise on steroids. In fact, some will argue now that UW is now a tougher place to play than in Eugene. That being said, overall the Trojans still lead the series with UW (50-29-4), but let’s not forget last season when the Trojans lost to Washington, 17-12, in the Coliseum. You can be sure the Huskies won’t be intimidated by Clay Helton’s Trojans.

The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 7.5-point favorite underdog to Washington.

The Not So Obvious: It isn’t the fact that the Trojans are underdogs, which was anticipated, but the amount of points is eyebrow raising. In other words, the gents that make the odds seem to have a lot more confidence that Washington, a team with a 12-game winning streak, is more legitimate than the Trojans, who are on a five-game winning streak, having cleaned up on inferior opponents. However, let’s not forget that Washington’s non-conference schedule included the likes of such powerhouses as Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State. Not exactly No. 1 Alabama whom the Trojans faced in the season opener. For the record, this will be the first ranked Husky team the Trojans have played since 2002 and the highest ranked since 1992, according to AP ranking history.

The Obvious: Saturday’s Trojans/Washington game will be nationally televised live on the FOX (4:30 p.m. PT).

The Not So Obvious: The FOX broadcasters for Saturday’s late afternoon kickoff will be Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analysis), and Shannon Spake (sidelines).

The Obvious: Saturday’s Trojans radio broadcast of the USC/ Washington game will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM at 4:30 p.m. (PT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).

The Trojans ESPNLA 710 pregame (12:30 p.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show on Saturday will feature Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, and WeAreSC contributor Jeremy Hogue.

The Not So Obvious: The Washington broadcast can be heard on flagship station KOMO 1000 AM with Bob Rondeau (play-by-play) and Damon Huard (analyst) and Elise Woodward (sidelines).

Saturday’s game can also be heard on ESPN Radio. The critical Pac-12 game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (online channel 971) and on the Tuneln Radio app.

The Obvious: ESPN’s College GameDay is the show of college football shows when it comes to Saturday mornings.

The Not So Obvious: College GameDay, which features bombastic and wildly entertaining Lee Corso, will be in Seattle for this Saturday’s morning show. BTW, the Trojans have won more than 70% of the time when the popular pregame show has been on site. For those early risers, College GameDay will air live from the University of Washington’s Red Square at 6-9AM PT/9AM-Noon ET. Red Square in the heart of the Huskies’ campus.

The Obvious: The Seattle weather on Saturday calls for morning rain showers and overcast clouds in the afternoon with a high of 58, 80 percent humidity, and a low of 48 degrees.

The Not So Obvious: We’ll see whether the Trojans are ready to play and keep their poise in another high profile, nationally spotlighted game in an intimidating stadium and against the Pac-12’s current best team. Trojans fans remember that Clay Helton’s club crumbled from the weight of the nationally televised opener with No. 1 Alabama along with the Crimson Tides’ incomparable talent. Now come the Washington Huskies, currently No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings with a legitimate chance to be in college football’s version of “The Final Four.” We’ll find out whether there is more pressure on Washington trying to maintain their Final Four status or for the Trojans to stay within striking distance of a repeat Pac-12 South Division title.

Offensively, we’ll see whether the Trojans can move the ball against a stout, aggressive Washington defense. Simply put, this is the game of reckoning for the Trojans’ offensive line. Whether they can move the Washington defense front will go a long way in determining the outcome of Saturday’s game. We’ll find out whether the Trojans’ O-line is up to the task after having had its way with the past three underwhelming defensive fronts of Arizona, Cal, and Oregon, respectively. Can Trojans running backs – namely explosive sophomore Ronald Jones ll (photo above – 394 ground yards the past two games, the most by a Trojan in consecutive outings since 2005 and his four TD runs last weekend tied a school game record) and supported by former senior starter Justin Davis – continue to be productive? We’ll see whether Jones can be a difference maker with his electrifying bursts. Washington’s defense suffered a big blow this week when it was announced that senior defensive end Joe Mathis, the Huskies sack leader, will miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury. That news is big, big. Thus far, Trojans redshirt freshman quarterback, Sam Darnold (18:3 TD-interception ratio as a six-game starter and who ranks in the national Top 10 in both passing efficiency, completion percentage, and is fourth among FBS QBs in the ESPN Total QBR), has been able to overcome his youthfulness and inexperience to cause extensive damage to the opposition’s defenders. However, whether he can do that against a talented UW secondary led by All-Pac-12 first teamers in junior safety Budda Baker and corner Sidney Jones is a big question mark. The Huskies are fifth in the nation in fewest yards allowed per passing attempt, at 5.6. It will be interesting to see whether the Trojans receivers, led by All-Pac-12 junior JuJu Smith-Schuster (Troy’s No. 7 career receiver), can be neutralized by the talented Huskies secondary.

Defensively for the Trojans, we’ll find out whether the defense can contain and control UW’s balanced attack, which ranks first in the Pac-12 (46.1). Huskies head coach Chris Petersen is considered one of the brightest minds in all of college football, and the one-time USC coaching candidate has been known to pull out some playground plays at the opportune time. For Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, this will be his most challenging game plan since Alabama. Not only does Clancy hope to limit the offensive damage from the Huskies, but he also has to hope the Trojans offense can control the ball and score at the same time. We’ll find out whether the Trojans pass rush can get to Washington’s sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, who leads the FBS in pass efficiency (202.8) and broke the school record with six TD passes at Oregon and then tied that with six more at Cal. We’ll see whether the Trojans defensive front can contain a Huskies’ running attack led by a future All-Pac-12 selection Myles Gaskin, now a sophomore, who ran for 134 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown as a freshman in last season’s UW win over the Trojans in the Coliseum. Not only can the Huskies run with some physical authority, but they have very quick and explosive receivers like juniors John Ross (44 rec., 742 yds., 16.9 avg., 14 TD in 2016) and Dante Pettis (37 rec., 574 yds., 15.5 avg., 11 TD in 2016). The balance that these two Husky performers present could be a Trojan nightmare. Browning can really wing it, and Gaskin can really run with extraordinary quickness. We’ll find out whether the Trojans defensive front can physically hold up against a physical Washington offense line. A key will be the health of Trojans’ starting nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (knee) and much his knee can hold up against an aggressive UW offensive interior.  The Trojans secondary, led by All-Pac-12 junior corner Adoree’ Jackson, will face its stiffest test since Alabama and could be the key to the game.

Specials teams could play a significant role in what figures to be a potentially high-scoring affair. However, if both defenses play with their hair on fire, it’s possible scores might be more difficult to attain. If that’s the case, Trojans junior placekicker Matt Boermeester could play a major role. We’ll see if the combination of the weather elements, like rain and/or wind, and ear-piercing fan noise get to the left-footed kicker. Like the Trojans electrifying punt and kick returner Adoree’ Jackson, Washington has their own lightning rod in Dante Pettis, who has the UW career record for TD punt returns (5).

The bottom line to Saturday’s game is whether the Trojans can contain the moment and the environment and play mistake-free football against a quality opponent. Washington rarely makes mistakes and plays consistently at a high level. The Trojans have the talent and certainly the ability to get the job done, but it will be extremely challenging to again not get caught up in the environment. This will be quarterback Sam Darnold’s biggest challenge since playing at Utah in another hostile surrounding. If No. 14 keeps his cool, we’ll find out whether he can will the Trojans to the upset. Any hope of a possible Pac-12 South Division title and a decent bowl game rests in the balance.

The Obvious: Saturday’s game will feature two extremely young but talented backfields.

The Not So Obvious: The Huskies will feature sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, who leads the country in passing efficiency and passing TDs (34) and sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin, a 2015 freshman All-American when he rushed for 1,302 yards. Both are playing at the top of their games. The Trojans, of course, counter with redshirt freshman quarterback sensation Sam Darnold, who ranks in the national Top 10 in both passing efficiency and completion percentage, and either senior tailback Justin Davis, who was having his finest season until a high ankle sprain, and sophomore sensation Ronald Jones ll, who has carried for 394 yards the past two games with four touchdowns last Saturday against Oregon.

The Obvious: The head football coach for Washington is Chris Petersen, now in his third season as the Huskies’ head coach.

The Not So Obvious: On playing the Trojans, Petersen says, “USC is right back to USC. Just watch the tape. This is, across the board, really good. Special teams, coach (John) Baxter does a great job. Tons of talent like you’d expect USC to have and now they are playing in rhythm in all three phases. I think it’s easy when you play the first game against Alabama and you’re still trying to figure out your guys, your quarterback. You see why they’re in this win streak. They are playing well, they’ve got good players, they’re well-coached. I’m glad we’re playing at home, and it’ll be a heck of a game.”

The Obvious: Because of his past standout performances, Washington is well aware of the presence of Trojans’ quarterback Sam Darnold.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding Sam Darnold, Washington head coach Chris Petersen says, “Really good athlete. He can move, he can run. Really strong arm and he’s an accurate thrower. It doesn’t look like they’re doing any less with him whatsoever. I think when a guy has year-plus in the system — I know he redshirted, but he was obviously paying attention to what was going on. Now he’s not really a freshman when you look at how many games he’s played now and the things he’s seen. He’s doing a really good job. You couple that with the receivers, it’s like ‘who’s that? Who’s that? Who’s that?’ You’ve got five or six guys, and I think their hard decision is trying to figure out who should get the ball the most, whether it’s the tailback or receivers.”

The Obvious: In comparing the Trojans and the Huskies, both teams have recently played and defeated soundly the Cal Bears.

The Not So Obvious: In total offensive yardage against the Cal defense, the Trojans amassed 629 yards while Washington rolled up 704 yards.

The Obvious: The Trojans will be facing a balanced offense that’s probably the best they’ve seen since Alabama.

The Not So Obvious: Assessing Washington’s offense, Trojans’ sophomore standout inside linebacker Cameron Smith says, “They’re very balanced. They do a great job of running the ball. Their O-line looks awesome. They’re very balanced out of their formations, and they’re accomplishing what they want. Our goal is shutting the run down and making them one dimensional. They work their double teams really well, and they get a lot of penetration on the D-line. They start moving guys, and their back (Myles Gaskin) has great vision, he hits it, and is very shifty in the hole.”

The Obvious: USC fans, college football fans, and the national media will be looking to see if the Trojans handle the big stage better this time than they did against Alabama back on Sept. 3.

The Not So Obvious: According to Trojan junior safety Chris Hawkins, the intense Alabama experience in Texas will help against Washington. Hawkins says, “People can get caught up in it (Washington), but we have to practice extra hard. We’ve watched them on TV. It’s not like they’re unbeatable. They bleed just like we do and put their clothes on like we do. I know their players and I played with them in high school. The atmosphere there (Husky Stadium) is going to be crazy. I heard their new stadium it gets pretty loud. We played in Dallas (against Alabama), and that’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I feel this is going to be another great experience. I love playing in big stadiums when it’s super loud.”

The Obvious: The Trojans have nine sacks on the season, which is last in the Pac-12.

The Not So Obvious: Washington have 27 sacks on the season, second in the Pac-12.

The Obvious: Trojans All-Pac-12 junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster could have a big effect on the outcome against Washington.

The Not So Obvious: Asked what it would take to beat the Huskies and how might the experience of a big game like Alabama help in dealing with the high pressured Husky Stadium atmosphere, JuJu says, “Just keep doing what we’ve been doing. I know a few guys over there, top dudes. Washington has a lot of heart and it’s going to be a home game for them. For us coming in playing as family and as brothers, we can do a lot better. Having played against Alabama and that atmosphere we’ll help us most definitely. We’ve seen it and done it, it’s another big effort for us.”

The Obvious: The Trojans and Washington faced each other in the 1944 Rose Bowl.

The Not So Obvious: It was the first Rose Bowl game that was not intersectional (because of wartime travel restrictions). The Trojans shut out the heavily-favored Huskies, 29-0, behind 3 TD passes from QB Jim Hardy.

The Obvious: The 2016 Trojans offense is averaging 32.0 points per game while the Washington defense is allowing 17.0 points per outing.

The Not So Obvious: The 2016 Washington offense is averaging 48.3 points per game while the Trojans defense is allowing 23.6 points per game.

The Obvious: USC has scored in its past 244 games, a school record (although 15 scoring games later vacated due to NCAA penalty; revised record streak: 186 games, 1976 to 1983).

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans last shutout loss was in 1997 at Washington, 27-0. In fact, three of the last four times the Trojans been shut out were games at Washington: 1983 (24-0, snapping USC’s school record), 1990 (31-0) and that 1997 contest (the other shutout in that span came at Arizona State in 1985, 24-0).

The Obvious: The last time the Trojans played in Husky Stadium was in 2009.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans last trip to the Seattle area was 2012 when the Men of Troy played the Huskies at the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium while UW’s facility was being renovated.

The Obvious: The Trojans have two players from the state of Washington in Zach Banner (ORT from Tacoma Lakes High) and Max Browne (QB from Sammamish Skyline High).

The Not So Obvious: Washington lists 53 players on its roster from California.

The Obvious: Johnny Nansen is the Trojans current linebacker coach.

The Not So Obvious: Nansen was once an assistant coach at Washington (2009-11)

The Obvious: And finally, because of the Pac-12 scheduling rotation, the Trojans will not meet Washington or Oregon again in the regular season until 2019.

The Not So Obvious: Oregon State and Washington State, the Trojans’ conference “misses” in 2015 and 2016, will replace Washington and Oregon on Troy’s 2017 and 2018 schedule calendar.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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