USC-Washington State: What To Watch For

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE

1. USC starting quarterback battle

Neither Cody Kessler (10 for 19, 95 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception) or Max Wittek (5 for 10, 77 passing yards) played well enough in Week 1 at Hawaii to really stand out, and USC coach Lane Kiffin has declined to name a starter publicly in advance of the Pac-12 opener. Multiple media outlets have reported that Kessler will start for the second straight week, while Wittek will also see the field. But will one of them do enough in Week 2 to grab ahold of the starting gig? Jack Follman and Patrick Flower of Pacific Takes both weighed in on the current situation:

Follman: I think that until one of them steps up, they will continue to split time as Kiffin can kind of use these early games as auditions.

Flower: It's unfortunate because I think either QB has the tools to succeed and being annointed "starter" gives you an extra boost of confidence. Kessler or Wiittek would be a serviceable option at this point but neither one distinguished himself over the other. Having two good QBs is a great problem but a decision needs to be made for this team to run at full capacity.

2. USC defense vs. Air Raid

The Trojans new "52" defensive scheme made Taylor Graham's first college start miserable, as they recorded seven sacks and four interceptions. Granted, it was against Hawaii, but the play of Clancy Pendergast's unit was one of the few positives out of Week 1. The Warriors couldn't muster up anything on offense, but tonight, Mike Leach's Air Raid offense will certainly be more of a test for the USC secondary. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday threw the ball 65 times against Auburn, although three throws proved costly. Can the Trojans' unit up front generate enough pressure on Halliday to force him into the same mistakes? A year ago, the Cougars ranked dead last in the NCAA in sacks given up per game (nearly five per game), and USC could also get a boost up front with Morgan Breslin (a team-best 13 sacks in 2012) possibly returning. But both starting cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Kevon Seymour suffered injuries in Week 1. If they cannot go, who will step up in their absence? Here's more from Follman and Flowers:

Follman: Halliday is a mistake-prone gunslinger, but when he has time he is deadly with his fleet of talented young receivers. The Cougars have about six or seven receivers that can not only get open and catch the ball, but wear down defensive backs because they have to cover them up and down the field the entire game. The Trojans will be really hurting if they don't have quality cornerbacks healthy to rotate in and give guys breathers.

Flowers: The Air Raid will give any secondary fits because the ball is thrown 50 to 70 times a game. If USC accepts the fact that they will be passed on for 300+ yards and focus on eliminating errors in coverage and taking advantage of Halliday's few 'why-did-he-do-that' passes then USC should be good in shape. If I were USC I would focus more on a WSU rushing attack that ran for 120 yards (~90 yards more than last year's average) against a stout Auburn front four. I wouldn't expect a Brown or Seymour absence to greatly effect WSU's final passing numbers because WSU will throw like gangbusters regardless of who starts.

3. Tailback U?

The Trojans utilized both Tre Madden and Justin Davis in the backfield during Week 1, in part because of the absences of Silas Redd and D.J. Morgan. Madden, who missed the entire 2012 season because of a torn ligament in his knee, recorded a game-high 109 rushing yards, while Davis - a true freshman - notched 74 yards via the ground, along with one touchdown. In a Sunday night conference call with select media members, Kiffin praised his two young players:

"I thought that the run game was very efficient, especially for two running backs that had never played running back in a college game ever before," Kiffin said.

Now they face a Washington State defense that allowed 295 rushing yards to Auburn, and more than six yards per carry. Can Madden and Davis duplicate their performance in Week 2? If they can, it will take a lot of the load off of Kessler and Wittek to match Halliday through the air, and allow USC to control the tempo of the game.


The positives in Week 1 for the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner? Lee still topped the century mark in receiving yards despite the uncertainty and struggles behind center for USC. The negatives? Two dropped passes and a lost fumble. Leaving those extra points on the board might not have mattered against Hawaii, but those mistakes against Washington State might be the difference. Last year, the Cougars ranked 100th in the nation out of 124 FBS teams in pass defense. If Lee and whoever is under center can develop a rapport with one another, the better it is for the Trojans' offense.

5. Penalties, penalties, penalties

This was a recurring theme during the 2012-13 season (USC ranked 116th in the nation out of 124 FBS teams), and not much changed in Week 1 at Hawaii as USC was flagged nine times for 75 yards. Part of that can be attributed to a lack of continuity on offense, but numerous other flags came on the defensive side of the ball, whether it be personal fouls or holding calls. There's a lot of time to shore up this issue, but USC can ill afford to keep getting whistled consistently in an area it can control.

USC-Washington State kicks off at 7:30 p.m. PT and will be televised live on the new Fox Sports 1 cable network. You can also listen live on 710 ESPN Radio.

Follow Trevor on Twitter: @Trevor_Wong.

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