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Q&A with CougCenter: Does #16 Washington State have the tools to upset #5 USC?

We learn all we have to know about this big Pac-12 match up straight from Coug’s mouth

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

USC’s biggest road game will be yet another challenge for this battle-tested Trojan team. With a lot of USC coverage leading up to the game, we linked up with our SB Nation brethren CougCenter to get an education on this Washington State Cougar football team.

1.) QB Luke Falk has been on a tear this season, but he had a rough game against Boise State, by far his worst game when he only threw for 193 yards zero touchdowns for one interception in triple overtime. What was your biggest takeaway from that game? Anything applicable to USC?

CougCenter(CC): I think this got lost in the shuffle a bit nationally, but Falk actually got benched in the third quarter of that game — a result of timid play that was neutering the offense. He came back in, played timid some more, fumbled the ball on a sack, and was benched the rest of the way. Falk’s biggest challenge is remaining decisive in the pocket; he often seems to let perfect be the enemy of good, sometimes needing guys to be wide open before throwing the ball their way.

Thus, any opponent who can cause him to slow down and hold the ball is going to have the most success against him. That’s generally been achieved in one of two ways: Flooding the patterns with lots of defenders (sometimes rushing only three and dropping eight) and/or disrupting routes by physically bullying the receivers at the line of scrimmage.

And this is what’s applicable to USC: The Trojans have the kind of talent on defense to do the latter in the manner that UCLA, Colorado, Washington and Minnesota did last season. Those were Falk’s four worst games, which gives me pause as I approach this one. WSU does have more physical talent at receiver than it did last year, but it’s generally young talent; of the six guys who will see the most snaps, two are juniors (who have a lot of experience), two are sophomores and two are freshmen. I’m very curious to see how they perform.

Regardless, USC’s goal should be to cause as many moments of indecision as possible, because that’s the best way to get him to just hold the ball. He’s incredibly risk averse, which is why I wouldn’t expect USC’s ball hawking to come into play; but if the Trojans can muck it up enough in the secondary, the pass rush will eventually get home against an offensive line that doesn’t whiff very often.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

2.) USC’s offense has been “balanced” but they have had the bulk of their success on the ground with the duo of Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr. How can WSU attempt to stifle the run?

CC: WSU employs an attacking, one-gap defensive scheme. When it’s working well, multiple guys are in the backfield, disrupting running backs before they ever have a chance to get started — they’re tops in the conference in tackles for loss, and while that surely is partially due to the level of competition, it’s also due to the guys they’ve got up front, who are fast off the ball. Hercules Mata’afa is the leader in that regard, a guy who can be unblockable at times no matter who the opponent is.

The downside is that the front is undersized, and we’re all very curious to see how it holds up against a bigger and more physical offensive line. The nose tackle, Daniel Ekuale, is 300 pounds, but he’s the only guy on the roster who fits that description, and he’s not even really a classic space-eating nose tackle. If USC can stymie WSU’s slants and stunts and clear out some gaps, there’s not a lot standing in the way of getting to the second level. Of particular concern is that Peyton Pelluer, WSU’s outstanding middle linebacker, is out for the season. His replacement is redshirt freshman Jahad Woods. He’s athletic, but a bit smaller. Will he get lost in the wash and be unable to make plays? We’re unsure.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

3.) Given how Sam Darnold has performed this season, do you consider him a threat? Does he concern you in this game?

CC: Well, yeah. And yeah. But it’s more than just Darnold being good; mobile QBs have given us fits under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. I’ve already mentioned how aggressive the defensive front can be; if they’re reckless with their pass rush and Darnold gets out of the pocket, that’s major trouble for the Cougs. It’ll be interesting to see if WSU purposes to keep him in the pocket with a “contain” pass rush, the way teams try to do with a guy like Russell Wilson. Regardless, I expect him to get loose for some of his patented scrambles — just hopefully not too many.

4.) Which player on offense should USC fans know about?

CC: Probably Tavares Martin Jr., since I know USC has given up some big plays this year. He’s been the Cougs’ most explosive receiver, and he’s a threat to take it to the house anytime he touches it. Jamal Morrow is probably second; he’s WSU’s best running back and can make plays both through rushing and receiving. He’s shifty, and he’s stronger than defenders often realize.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

5.) Which player on defense should USC fans know about?

CC: It’s Mata’afa. If he’s living in USC’s backfield, the Trojans are in trouble. Everything — and I mean everything — they do on defense starts with him. I’d pick safety Jalen Thompson second; he’s already got three interceptions, and I have a feeling the sophomore is just getting started. He’d be the guy most likely to make Darnold pay for a questionable throw into coverage.

6.) How do you see this game going?

CC: I know it’s a cop out, but I really have no idea. The level of competition this year has been exceptionally low — with the exception of Boise State, who maybe isn’t even as good as we thought a couple of weeks ago — so I’m not sure what to think of WSU. The ranking says their good, the talent level is good ... but man, they’ve looked great and not so great. (A lot like USC.)

The thing that gives me hope: Martin Stadium is going to be absolutely lit. And WSU has tended to play well under Mike Leach in front of those kinds of crowds in these kinds of big, night-time games against highly ranked opponents (Oregon 2014, Stanford 2015). Additionally, USC playing its second consecutive road game on a short week is less than ideal.

I’ll just say I think it will be close, and we’ll probably get some #Pac12AfterDark action. That’s what we all really want anyway, right?

A special thank you to Jeff Nusser of CougCenter for all the assistance and knowledge. For the best coverage of Washington State sports, check them out here.