Saturday, September 7, 10:30 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: For the first time since 2010 the USC Trojans and the Washington State Cougars will square off as each team opens its Pac-12 Conference schedule at the Rose Bowl.
Since first meeting in 1921, the Cougars and Trojans have been matched up 69 times. USC has been far and away the more dominant program with 11 national titles (2004's crown has since been vacated), and seven Heisman Trophy winners. Meanwhile, Washington State has never finished a season higher than No. 9 in the AP Top 25. The difference in the two programs is well documented in the all-time head-to-head record with USC owning 57 wins against the Cougars. The last contest came during the 2010 season when USC ran to a 50-16 win in Pullman.
This season doesn't look like it will prove to be much different. The Cougars entered the campaign coming off a 3-9 season a year ago and once again far from Pac-12 title contention. The Cougars can take some pride in their opening game though, as they traveled to face Auburn of the SEC and fought hard in a 31-24 loss. Still losing close games is not why head coach Mike Leach, now in his second year, was brought in.
Even though USC didn't come into this season as highly touted as a year ago, the Trojans still earned a spot in the AP Top 25 in the preseason. Despite dropping a spot to No. 25, the Trojans remain in the rankings after defeating Hawaii, 30-13, in Honolulu in their season-opener.
At this point there is no mystery or intrigue when looking at a Mike Leach offense. Last season the Cougars threw for a Pac-12 best 330.4 yards per game utilizing Leach's Air Raid system. That type of production was pretty much guaranteed to continue, especially considering there would be stability at quarterback.
Connor Halliday certainly lived up to the production end of the equation as he threw for 344 yards against Auburn. However, Halliday still seemed to suffer from the efficiency issues he dealt with last season as he completed 35-of-65 passes and was intercepted three times.
With Halliday flinging the ball for most of the contest, the Cougars' receiving corps got plenty of work. In fact 10 different players recorded at least one reception. Gabe Marks took an early lead as Halliday's favorite target as he brought in nine passes for 81 yards, both team-highs.
The most surprising development from the opening weekend for the Cougars was the success of the rushing game. Led by 53 yards from Teondray Caldwell the Cougars tallied 120 rushing yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. That is quite an upgrade after the Cougars had just 349 total rushing yards in 2013.
"It helps a lot," Halliday said in reference to the improved running game. "It helps our offensive line probably the most. The windows get a little bigger, its not like throwing seven on seven out there anymore."
Though modest, the Cougars also earned some improvement on the defensive side of the ball against the Tigers. Washington State let up just over 425 yards of total offense last season but on Saturday were able to hold the Tigers under 400 yards. However, a more in-depth look at the numbers would show that Auburn, playing at slower, run-first pace with 46 rushing attempts, had no trouble picking up ground as the Tigers averaged 6.0 yards per play.
Deone Bucannon is unquestionably the most talented defender on Leach's defense. The senior safety illustrated why against Auburn as he racked up 14 tackles and forced and recovered a fumble. Darryl Monroe was second on the team with six tackles, including one of four stops for loss.
A slow start by USC had the Trojans trailing, 5-3, to Hawaii late in the first half. However, the Trojans eventually hung up 242 yards of total offense and 27 points in the last 36 minutes of the contest. The Trojans looked especially in sync in their last two scoring drives when they posted drives of 85 and 80 yards. The Trojans had no other drives in the contest longer than 35 yards.
A slow start was somewhat expected considering head coach Lane Kiffin still hasn't officially named a successor to Matt Barkley at quarterback. Both Cody Kessler and Max Wittek got a crack under center in the win over Hawaii. Kessler made the start and completed 10-of-19 pass attempts and had a touchdown and interception. Wittek completed 5-of-10 passes for 77 yards. Neither took a particularly large step forward in what could be an on going competition, though Kiffin denied that notion after the Hawaii game.
"We wanted to see both guys play and see how they'd do. I anticipated both guys would play great. Max's numbers probably won't look that great but a few catches would have changed those really fast," Kiffin said. "Going into Saturday though, we'll have a definite starter."
It didn't help that defending Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee didn't look as lethal as a year ago. Perhaps still shaking off the rust, Lee, who did finish with team-highs in receptions (eight) and yards (104), failed to score and had a number of drops. The rest of the receiving corps managed just seven catches for 68 yards.
Led by Tre Madden (18 carries, 109 yards) and Justin Davis (14 carries, 74 yards, TD) the Trojans got some solid production out of their running game, with 192 yards. However, a knee injury to projected starter Silas Redd kept him from the game. His status is still uncertain.
For all the uncertainty and inconsistencies on offense, the Trojans were still able to earn an easy win thanks to strong defensive play. USC only allowed the Rainbow Warriors to collect 231 yards, including a paltry 23 yards on 31 rushing attempts. Additionally, USC held Hawaii to just four successful third down attempts in 18 chances.
Dion Bailey was a disruptive force all over the field as he had a team-high seven tackles, a sack and an interception, one of four the Trojans recorded. Leonard Williams and George Uko each had a pair of sacks as well for the Trojans, who took down Hawaii quarterback Taylor Graham seven times.
It is going to take a little while for USC to gel if neither Kessler nor Wittek takes command under center. However, Lee will bounce back and that should help the offense get into more of a rhythm. As long as the defense keeps playing like it did against Hawaii, USC will be fine at home, even against an improving Washington State squad.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: USC 35, Washington State 21
09/04 10:45:17 ET