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O/NSO: Washington State edition

The Obvious: In an eastern Washington territory known as the great Palouse and more specifically the little collegiate hamlet of Pullman, the No. 5 USC Trojans’ (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) and the hometown No. 16 Washington State Cougars (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) collide Friday night (7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET/ESPN) in tiny Martin Stadium for what many are calling the Trojans’ 2017 “trap game.”

The Not So Obvious: For the record, this will be Washington State’s fifth straight home game in Wrigley Field-like Martin Stadium (32,952), which is sold out for Friday night’s confrontation. The game has just about everything you’d want in terms of importance and potential offensive fireworks. Both teams want to remain unbeaten and show the nation their rankings are legit. For the Trojans, it’s an opportunity to impress the CFP committee that they truly are one of college football’s elite teams and also remain unbeaten in Pac-12 play. For Washington State, it’s an opportunity to make real inroads for both their program nationally and also remain unblemished in the Pac-12. It’s also a chance for the celebrated quarterbacks of both universities, USC’s Sam Darnold and WSU’s Luke Falk, to showcase their skills for not only Heisman Trophy voters but for the pro scouts in attendance.

The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 5 ½ -point favorite to defeat Washington State.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans, currently on a 13-game winning streak, haven’t played at Washington State since 2014. The Cardinal and Gold have lost only three times over the years at Martin Stadium. Now for some stats that could give some insight into Friday night’s game. The combined won-loss record of Washington State’s opponents is 4-11. The combined won-loss record of the Trojans’ adversaries is 9-7. This will also be the first time in the USC-WSU history that both teams come into the game unbeaten through at least four games.    

The Obvious: Friday night’s game featuring the Trojans and Washington State will be nationally televised on ESPN (7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET).

The Not So Obvious: The ESPN broadcasters for Friday night’s game willbe Adam Amin (play-by-play), Dusty Dvoracek (analysis), and Molly McGrath (sidelines).

The Obvious: Friday night’s Trojans’ game radio broadcast from Washington State will air live (7:30 p.m. PT) on ESPNLA 710 AM with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).

The Trojans ESPNLA 710 pregame show (3:30 p.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show will feature a variety of talent, which includes Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, Dennis Thurman, Rachel Frain, and WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz.

The Not So Obvious: The Washington State broadcast can be heard on flagship station KXLY (920 AM) with Matt Chazanow (play-by-play), Jason Gesser and Rich Robertson (analysts) and Jessamyn McIntyre. The game will also be broadcast nationally on Westwood One with Ted Emrich (play-by-play) and Brady Poppinga (analyst).

Friday night’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (online channel 962) and on the Tuneln Radio app.

The Obvious: Friday night’s Pullman weather forecast for kickoff calls for a mostly cloudy evening with a kickoff high of 65 and possible showers (35%) around 10 p.m. PT.

The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether the Trojans are ready for potential rain late in the second half, and whether they’re ready defensively for the passing bombardment of head coach Mike Leach’s Washington State throwing offense, which is second in the Pac-12. Without junior rush end standout Porter Gustin, we’ll find out whether the Trojans’ defensive line is up to the task of getting to Cougars’ star quarterback Luke Falk, especially on third down. The WSU O-line has already given up 14 sacks (121st nationally) in four games. We’ll see if future NFL QB Falk can extract points from a Trojans’ secondary that is highly suspect and hasn’t faced a quarterback of Falk’s talent level this season. We’ll find out whether Trojans’ corners Jack Jones and Iman Marshall can handle their toughest assignment to date. For the record, WSU has the worst rushing offense in the Pac-12 (71.8 yds. APG) … Offensively, the Trojans will continue to rely on the talents of redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, who has flashed Heisman Trophy skills but has also been bit by the interception bug (7 Int.). Darnold’s effectiveness will depend on whether his offensive line, which reportedly will not have starting left tackle Toa Lobendahn (staph infection), can protect him.  We’ll watch to see whether the reconfigured O-line gives Darnold enough time to maneuver around the pocket and not get roughed up in the process. The Cougars will attempt to get to Darnold with all-star D-lineman Hercules Mata’afa, a real stud… A big question for Darnold, besides his pass protection, is the playing status of his favorite receiver Deontay Burnett, who will try to perform despite a questionable shoulder but for how long? Burnett’s receiving partner, Steven Mitchell Jr., is doubtful (groin), so we’ll see whether the Trojans can offset a limited appearance by Burnett and the probable loss of Mitchell with the emerging talents of redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns… The good news is that the Trojans will see the return of junior starting tailback Ronald Jones ll, adding fuel and speed to the offense, and we’ll find out whether true freshman tailback Stephen Carr can continue his production in another hostile environment… If the Trojans have a major card to play, it could be whether true freshman placekicker Chase McGrath can continue to convert field goals, two of which have already been converted in pressurized situations like the Texas regulation and overtime game. However, it will take more than field goals to beat the Cougars.

The Obvious: The 2017 Trojans’ offense averages 37.0 points per game while the Washington State defense is allowing 18.5 points per outing.

The Not So Obvious: The 2017 Washington State offense averages 43.8 points per game while the Trojans defense is allowing 24.75 points per game.

The Obvious: It would appear that the Trojans offense will have to score a lot of points to overcome the potent Washington State offense, and that means attacking a Cougars’ defense with regularity.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Cougars’ defense, Trojans’ offensive coordinator Tee Martin says, “Their defense is aggressive and gives you a lot of looks. They pressure and sack the quarterback really good. It’s been a few years since we last played them, but they do a good job of movement upfront. They pressure the quarterback with different coverages. It’s going to be a challenge.” One of the players that Martin says is elite is Hercules Mata’afa. Martin says, “No. 50 (Mata’afa) is really unbelievable. And secondary wise, they have veterans.”

The Obvious: Quarterback Sam Darnold is the key to the Trojans’ offense.

The Not So Obvious: Looking at the Washington State defense, Darnold says, “They’re very athletic and they create a lot of problems in their scheme, and we’ve seen that on film. They present a challenge, but we’re up to it. I think it’s going to be a great game on Friday.” 

The Obvious: One of the more popular vacation Hawaiian destinations is the island of Maui and its famous fishermen’s town of Lahaina.

The Not So Obvious: WSU’s star redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa (6-2, 264) is from Maui and the town of Lahaina, having attended Lahainaluna High. Mata’afa, who was 215 pounds his senior season at Lahainaluna, is a former “3-star” prospect and an All-State First Team selection by the Hawaii Star-Advertiser his senior season.

The Obvious: Washington State’s head coach Mike Leach is in sixth season guiding the Cougars.

The Not So Obvious: Asked to evaluate whether Trojans’ QB Sam Darnold is ready for the NFL, coach Leach said, “I think he’s mature, really just kind of mentally together for a guy that’s his age. Oh, I think he could be (ready for the NFL in the future). I don’t think he is today.”

The Obvious: The Washington State offense will be a challenge for the Trojans’ defense.

The Not So Obvious: Assessing Washington’s State QB Luke Falk and the potent Cougars’ offense, Trojans’ DC Clancy Pendergast said, “Oh, I think he (Falk) has obviously got a lot of talent. He’s a big, imposing quarterback and has a very good skill set. He sees the field really well, uses all areas of the field. He knows their system and is very much a student of the game. I am very impressed with his ability level. They’ve got a really good group of backs, they’re really committed to try and run the ball, and they get the ball to the backs in a lot of different ways. You can call them ‘The Air Raid’ or whatever their offense is, but it’s very much a traditional West Coast passing game from what I see, and they execute at a very high level.”  

The Obvious: The Trojans have been ranked high in the AP poll since the beginning of the season.

The Not So Obvious: AP Top 5-ranked Trojans teams are 11-0 against Washington State.

The Obvious: The Washington State star quarterback is Luke Falk (6-4, 223), a redshirt senior from Logan, Utah.

The Not So Obvious: The last time USC and Washington played, Falk came off the bench and finished 38-for-57 passing with 346 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.

The Obvious: The Trojans have dominated the series with Washington State.

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans are 6-1 versus AP Top 25-ranked Washington State teams.

The Obvious: The Trojans are hoping that its offensive line, which has been under heavy scrutiny this season, can control the small but aggressive Washington State defensive line.

The Not So Obvious: Speaking of offensive lines, Washington State’s offensive line is led by redshirt senior Cody O’Connell (6-9, 368), considered a future high NFL draft pick. O’Connell is a native of Wenatchee, Washington.

The Obvious: The Trojans have no players from the state of Washington.

The Not So Obvious: Washington State has 25 players on its roster from Southern California.

The Obvious: Scott Tinsley is a former USC quarterback (1980-82).

The Not So Obvious: Tinsley’s son, Trey Tinsley (6-3, 211), is a WSU redshirt sophomore quarterback, who is also a former signal caller from El Toro (Calif.) High.

The Obvious: And finally, Trojans’ linebacker coach is Johnny Nansen.

The Not So Obvious: Nansen is a former Washington State linebacker (1994-96) and doesn’t that add a little more fuel to the fire.


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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