Is USC’s game against Washington big? Yes. Redemption for Alabama? Not quite


USC Coach Clay Helton was asked Sunday where he had ranked the Trojans on the ballot he or a staff member fills out weekly for the coaches’ poll.

And what about USC’s next opponent, Washington?

Helton just laughed.

“I’ll keep that private,” he said on a weekly teleconference with reporters.

USC, 6-3 overall and 5-2 in Pac-12 Conference, has climbed out of the grave it dug in the first four games of the season. The Trojans haven’t cracked the rankings since an embarrassing loss to Alabama in their opener, but they have inched back to just outside the Associated Press top 25.


After five consecutive wins, they could be included in the College Football Playoff committee’s rankings when the latest iteration is released Tuesday.

As USC has trudged back to respectability, Saturday’s game against Washington (9-0) has loomed as a test that could either confirm USC’s resurrection or indicate it was a mirage against mostly weak competition.

“We’re ready for it,” linebacker Michael Hutchings said. “I think this is a perfect time for us to go up and play a game like that and put us on a roll.”

Washington is playing for a berth in the four-team national playoff. The Huskies were ranked No. 5 last week, behind one-loss Texas A&M, but the Aggies lost last weekend.

Helton noted that Washington probably will move up to No. 4 and said, “They’re deserving of it.”

Then he made an interesting comparison: “From the competitiveness that you play, you look at an Alabama team that I think is extremely elite. I would have to say Washington is another one of those elite football teams.”

The game is expected to draw the largest TV audience for a USC game since the Trojans’ nationally televised 52-6 loss to the Crimson Tide ion Labor Day weekend. So it provides an ideal platform to save face.

But Hutchings and other USC players said USC wasn’t seeking absolution.

“I think that’s so long ago,” Hutchings said. “We’re not really looking for redemption. Just time to focus on a Pac-12 team that just happens to be pretty good.”

Quarterback Sam Darnold said affixing too much meaning to the game could be dangerous.

“They’re a great team,” Darnold said of the Huskies. “Playoff contender, obviously. And well deserved. But we’re just going to look at them as another opponent. And I know it’s hard to say, but it’s true.”

Sackless in Seattle?

Among the many ways Darnold has boosted USC’s offensive performance in the six games he has started, one more can be added: He has made the offensive line better blockers. Effectively, anyway.

Darnold has been sacked only three times. Before he took over as the starter, USC gave up six sacks in its first three games. Its season total of nine is the lowest in the Pac-12.

“I think it goes twofold,” Helton said. “You have a quarterback making good decisions, not taking sacks, getting the ball out or creating with his feet. And you’ve got an offensive line that’s protecting their guy.”

The improved pass protection could neutralize one of Washington’s biggest strengths. The Huskies have 27 sacks in nine games, second in the conference.

Linebacker Joe Mathis, who leads the Huskies with five sacks, will sit out the rest of the season, Washington coach Chris Peterson said Monday. Mathis had already sat out three games because of a foot injury, and Washington averaged only one sack a game without him.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand