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USC Trojans Football Q&A: Washington State Cougars

Taking a closer look at the Cougs this year

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It is now officially less than three weeks till the college football season kicks off. We’ve almost made it. Until then, we’ll continue to preview conference games for the USC Trojans 2017 campaign.

Next up: Washington State

The Trojans will ride into Pullman, WA late september for a week five matchup against the WSU Cougars. The last time they played the Cougars on the road, they cruised to a 44-17 victory in 2014. However, don’t expect this matchup to go as smoothly, because the Cougs are legit. They finished 8-5 last year with an impressive 7-2 conference record. Let’s see what CougCenter had to say about their team.

Brendan Kearney-Conquest Chronicles

Jeff Nusser-CougCenter

Brendan: WSU seems to have no weaknesses on offense with stellar QB play in Luke Falk, a three headed (Wicks, Morrow, Williams ;possibly four with Harrington back) monster at RB, and 3 Oline starters returning. How would you try to stop this offense?

Jeff: I don't think it comes down to scheme. What it really comes down to -- and this is very good news for USC -- is whether a defense has good enough athletes to cover outsized portions of the field.

Here's what I mean by that. The Air Raid was designed specifically to force defenses to try and cover every square yard of a 1500-square-yard box -- sideline to sideline and 30 yards deep. The better the defensive athletes, the more square yardage each guy can cover, the smaller the open spaces for offensive players to run into. And when it comes to the run game, if a defense can put only five or six guys in the box and still stop it, that's a massive boon -- covering that 1500-square-yard box with five or six defensive backs instead of four is a big deal.

The defenses that have given WSU the most trouble in the Mike Leach era are those with superior athletes. The Cougs' roughest games last season came against UCLA, UW and Colorado. I don't think it's a coincidence that two of those games were against teams that have recruited superior athletes, and the third was against an extremely veteran team with a lot of strength. Each was able to get physical with WSU and do a significant amount with straight up coverages.

Now, WSU's recruiting has improved. And there's hope that the Cougs will be better able to match up physically with teams than they ever have before, particularly at the wide receiver position, where WSU finally has a number of big, strong, fast dudes. But

Brendan: What positional unit do you consider to be the best?

Jeff: It's probably not fair to say quarterback, since that's just one guy, so let's go with the running backs. "WHAT? Running backs in the AIR RAID?" Yep. WSU has a unit of four guys back there who are flat awesome -- so awesome that the running back position really became the focal point of the offense last season.

It doesn't look that way to casual observers, given that the Cougs only rushed for 120 yards a game -- 114th nationally. But that's not all the running backs are asked to do for Leach. Their ability to catch the ball out of the backfield -- again, to make defenses defend *everything* -- is a major part of the WSU offense. When you combine rushing and receiving, the Cougar running backs gained more than 2,600 yards last season, 13th nationally.

And this isn't a matter of scheme; they are talented. Jamal Morrow the best of the bunch on an all-around-skill basis -- not blazing fast, but fast enough; not super elusive, but elusive enough; not super strong, but strong enough ... etc. James Williams is the most physically talented. He'll play on Sundays. Gerard Wicks is a battering ram, and Keith Harrington has been dubbed the "screen whisperer" for his big plays. While Luke Falk gets a lot of justifiable praise for elevating the WSU offense, there absolutely is a correlation between the improved play at that position and the ascension of the Air Raid.

Brendan:How will WSU deal with the departure of DL Coach Joe Salave’a? What are the expectations from the line?

Jeff: I honestly don't think much of the fallout from his departure will be felt this season. To replace him, WSU hired Jeff Phelps, who found himself available after the mess at Minnesota. People have gone out of their way to praise Phelps, which could be genuine, or it could just be people trying to convince everyone how much they won't miss Salave'a. Regardless, these guys have been coached up for years by Coach Joe, and even if a fool was in there, they'd probably do fine.

The proof will be in what happens over the next couple of years in recruiting. Salave'a was WSU's connection to the Polynesian players, specifically in Salave'a's homeland of American Samoa. That's proved to be a necessary pipeline of talent to supplement the efforts on the mainland, and it includes two starters on this year's team: center Fred Mauigoa and defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale. It will be a big surprise if WSU recruits as well in that community as it did when Salave'a was leading the way, and it remains to be seen if the Cougs can maintain the overall level of talent without it.

Brendan: What are the expectations for Cougar fans (and yours) for this season?

Jeff: This is the rare season where many fans seem to have a little more trepidation than the media pundits, which is a weird place for us to be. Usually, we think everyone's overlooking us. This year, writers see all the returning players from a team that has won 17 games the last two years, led by an all-world QB, and think to themselves, "Hey, these guys are legit."

I do think the Cougs are legit. But a fan that's close to the team sees two of the best receivers in the history of the program moving on; one of them, inside receiver River Cracraft, missed the last third of the season and the offense really struggled against some very good defenses. Whether correlation equals causation here is debatable, but we all believe we saw receivers who couldn't get open on their own, and now we've got a ton of inexperience there. Talent, for sure, but inexperience.

A fan that's close to the team also sees the departures of Robert Barber and Shalom Luani on defense. Luani was the Cougs' best playmaker on that side of the ball, a total disruptive force; Barber was the team's best run stuffer. In a lot of ways, those two guys -- along with defensive end Hercules Mata'afa -- were the cogs in the engine of the defense. It remains to be seen if those guys can truly be replaced, or if everyone else is improved enough to mitigate it.

If WSU got to eight regular season wins again, I'd be happy. Anything more than that, and I'm very happy.

Brendan: Will Erik Powell have made a field goal heading into this matchup?

Jeff: Goodness, I hope so.

Special thank you to CougCenter.com. Look for this enticing matchup on Friday, September 29, at 7:30pm PT.