The USC Trojans leave Pullman, Washington as a six-win team, overcoming the elements of a foggy, wet and windy afternoon. The only problem, the major conversation around this game will center around the health of Su'a Cravens, Adoree' Jackson and Leon McQuay III, three of USC's most important defensive players in the secondary.
Traveling with just 48 recruited scholarship players, the Trojans' can hardly afford to suffer any major losses in the starting-22 unit of players. Despite those concerns, USC did some things very well during the game, highlighted by the efforts from Nelson Agholor both as a wideout and on special teams.
Nelson Agholor Carried The Load
When USC needed a play most, midway through the third quarter as the Cougars were slowly creeping back into the game, the breakaway speed of Nelson Agholor put the game out of reach. The 87-yard uncontested touchdown highlighted an 8-catch, 220-yard performance as the team's go-to option in the passing game.
Agholor's speed made him incredibly tough to cover, both over the middle and as a deep threat going down the sideline. He made his impact felt in the quick passing game, catching two passes that were each six yards in length, setting up his big-impact plays. And to think his best play of the night, in terms of sheer athleticism, came on a 65-yard punt return touchdown giving him the USC all-time record with four punt returns for scores.
Third Down For What?
Despite the strong showing from Cody Kessler, who passed for 400 yards and five touchdowns, the offense continues to struggle as a consistent unit that can move the chains on third down.
The Trojans finished the afternoon just 2-for-11 on third down as a battle of punting units ensued mid-way through the game. It was not the best show of playcalling in those situations, but that was largely due to the shuffling on the offensive line and the resultant necessity to get the ball out quickly.
USC's lone conversions came from George Farmer, who had a great first quarter of action, and all-purpose tailback Javorius Allen (who had a quiet game as a wideout). If USC wants to move the football against teams that can get pressure on the quarterback, they are going to have be more consistent than battling 3rd and medium-to-deep situations on offense.
Su'a Cravens is USC's Best Defender
Yep, you heard me right. The USC Trojans are bound by the outstanding play of sophomore Su'a Cravens. The free-flowing safety/outside linebacker was once again all over the field making plays. Cravens broke up passes, he made tackles in the backfield and he was giving the Cougars nightmares from sideline to sideline.
Now what will ultimately come from that performance was the unfortunate injury that took place toward the end of the second quarter. It looked like such an innocent play. Going against the grain from the actual action, Cravens landed awkwardly while planting in the end zone, leaving the entire USC team up for arms over the health of their game changer.
I love what Leonard Williams has done, especially in a more suited one-gap technique these past three weeks, but when at his best, Su'a Cravens is USC's best defensive player on the team. According to reports from Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com, Cravens was seen walking around on crutches after the game. Hopefully for the season's sake, the reported knee sprain is minor and not a long-term concern.
USC's Secondary Showed Some Things, Both Good and Bad
Facing what would be the Trojans' most daunting passing challenge, the secondary put together a great first half. Obviously the injury to Connor Halliday dampened the challenge ever so slightly, but the great interceptions from Hayes Pullard and Leon McQuay III highlighted an impressive defensive performance.
Now in terms of the second half, Luke Falk followed the path to success for the Washington State Cougars firing for 370 yards passing and two touchdowns. One positive, however, was the solid tackling by Adoree' Jackson in open space. He works hard, gets in great position and tackles low with force.
Kevon Seymour played well at the point of the catch, knocking three passes away from intended targets. The Trojans were attacked in the second half, but a large part of that was right according to plan. USC did not want to get beat deep so with a big lead they were willing to let WSU dink and dump in the short passing game.
Winning!!! But What Does That Mean?
The Trojans' are now bowl eligible and are still (6-3, 4-2) in the mix for the Pac-12 South Standings. We saw a USC team that jumped out to an early lead, continuing a strong stretch of first quarters this season. The Trojans took advantage of a big spark from Nelson Agholor to avoid any second-half complacency.
Outside of Cal following the bye week, the Trojans will avoid the slate of high-passing teams that will sling the football 50-60 times per game. That means USC must find a way to establish a serious pass rush against UCLA and Notre Dame, especially as J.R. Tavai and Su'a Cravens continue to rehab and get stronger.
Especially as guys like Charles Burks, Matt Lopes and Greg Townsend Jr. get more and more playing time, coach Justin Wilcox must make sure his team is fundamentally sound defending the run and playing against the mobile quarterback. Not to discredit these players, many of whom played quite well, but USC must be able to find any form of pass rush to rattle (arguably) the three best quarterbacks on its entire schedule.