by Garry Paskwietz
Here are key storylines to follow as the USC Trojans prepare to face the Washington Huskies on Saturday in Seattle:
Big man’s game: This game should feature some important battles at the line of scrimmage between two teams looking to establish a physical tone. The Trojans have seen a steady improvement lately on the offensive line and now they will be tested with a Husky d-line that features three players over 300 pounds, it will be interesting to see how the USC ran game is used now that Justin Davis is expected back in the rotation with Ronald Jones. On the flip side, the Trojans got some good news along the d-line this week as it looks like Stevie Tu’ikolovatu should be able to go despite a minor knee injury. The Huskies like to be balanced on offense and Stevie is a key to plugging the middle of the line against the run.
Injury impacts: We mentioned the return of Davis and Tu’ikolovatu, and both of those are important pieces of the USC puzzle, plus there was also encouraging news for guys who had been banged up such as Biggie Marshall (hamstring), Damien Mama (knee) and Aca’Cedric Ware (ankle). The only Trojan who figures to miss the game is Jonathan Lockett, who also missed last week with a hip injury. Look for Ajene Harris to fill the slot corner role in his place, with Leon McQuay staying at safety alongside Marvell Tell, and Chris Hawkins in the mix as well. For Washington, the announcement this week that Joe Mathis would be lost for the season was a huge blow to their pass rush. Mathis had already missed three games with his injury and the sack production has suffered, from 24 sacks in the 6 games with Mathis to 3 sacks in the 3 games without him.
Passing fancy: You want good quarterbacks? Check. Explosive receivers? Check. Talented cover men? Check. Add it all up and you have the potential for some high-level competition between the two passing offenses/defenses. Jake Browning and Sam Darnold rank 1-2 in the Pac-12 Conference in passing efficiency and both have impressive touchdown to interception ratios (Browning at 34-2, 20-4 for Darnold). They each have big play receivers led by JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers for the Trojans and John Ross and Dante Pettis for the Huskies. The Trojans will counter with Adoree’ Jackson and Biggie Marshall in coverage, while Washington has Sidney Jones and Budda Baker leading the way in the secondary.
Tale of two coaches: For Clay Helton this game is a chance to prove that he has the Trojans on the right path, that the early season struggles are in the past and that he can match in-game coaching wits with one of the best in the business in Chris Petersen, who also happens to be a former candidate for the USC job that Helton currently holds. That fact alone will have a lot of USC fans watching how the two coaches fare against each other. For Petersen, he has the Huskies on the doorstep of a dream season and the Trojans offer perhaps the biggest hurdle yet. This Washington team is known for playing sound fundamental football but Petersen can also break out the surprise play from time to time. Let the chess match begin.
Rising to the moment: You can’t fake a big-game atmosphere and this is as real as it gets. The stakes are there for playoff implications (at least for one team), berths in the conference title game, and important measuring sticks for both programs. The Trojans had a test in the season opener that didn’t go well, and this is a chance for a reset that would go a long way in the eyes of the Trojan Family if the team performs well. UW has the pressure of trying to maintain a spot in the CFB rankings, something that will certainly go away if they don’t win the game. That’s a thin margin of error for players who haven’t been in that situation before.