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USC vs. Washington State matchups: Trojans’ secondary must shut down top wideouts

Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell and quarterback Jayden de Laura stand on the field.
Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell, left, and quarterback Jayden de Laura could provide a tough challenge for the USC secondary on Sunday.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Breaking down how No. 20 USC (3-0) and Washington State (1-1) match up ahead of Sunday’s game at the Coliseum at 4:30 p.m. (TV: FS1; Radio: 790)

Marquee matchup

USC’s secondary vs. Washington State wideouts Renard Bell and Travell Harris: Mike Leach may no longer be at Washington State, but his four-wide, spread philosophy lives on. At least, in some form. The Cougars don’t pass as much as they used to under new coach Nick Rolovich — 36 attempts per game, compared to 54 a year ago — and they lost their three top receivers from 2019. But Bell and Harris have seamlessly moved into larger roles, combining for 419 yards and three touchdowns through two games. Together, they’re tied atop the Pac-12 in receptions per game. USC’s secondary hasn’t been tested by an explosive passing game yet this season.

Getting offensive

USC (470.3 ypg, 31.7 ppg): The Trojans are putting up more yards per game than all but one other team in the Pac-12, yet it’s hard not to feel like they’ve still somehow underachieved. Kedon Slovis has yet to put together a performance on par with his final stretch last season, but this could be the week that changes that. Washington State has arguably the worst pass defense in the conference, and Slovis will assuredly throw early and often. The problem this week may not be USC’s quarterback, but with the line in front of him. COVID-19 issues left more than half the offensive line unavailable last week, and it’s unclear how many of USC’s linemen will still be in quarantine Sunday.

Marv Marinovich, who helped USC football capture a national title in 1962 before his son went on to become a star quarterback for the Trojans, has died at 81.

Washington State (438.5 ypg, 33.5 ppg): Rest assured, Washington State is going to air it out. But if there’s one stark difference between the philosophies of Leach and Rolovich, it’s on the ground. The Cougars still run less than any other Pac-12 team, but they’re averaging 12 more carries per game this season than their last under Leach. They’re also a lot more efficient on the ground, with only Arizona State averaging more yards per carry (5.77). But if Washington State is going to outduel USC, it’s going to take a big game from freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura, who, in his last outing, threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon.

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Getting defensive

USC (387.7 ypg, 24.7 ppg): The Trojans defense took a significant step forward against Utah, forcing five turnovers. But will that progress continue? The secondary will be seriously tested this week, and an effective pass rush would go a long way in helping them pass that test. USC had an extra week off to get healthy, but could still be short-handed at linebacker.

Washington State (516 ypg, 35.5 ppg): Arguably the worst defense in the Pac-12 through two games is set to face the offense many expected to be the conference’s best. The Cougars have been torched on the ground, allowing a league-worst 5.84 yards per carry. Lucky for them, USC has yet to get its ground game going. Linebacker Jahad Woods is the seasoned veteran in the front seven and, as expected, leads Washington State in tackles (16) and tackles per loss (3). The secondary hasn’t been much better, having allowed four touchdowns to Oregon’s Tyler Shough.

Something special

Washington State kicker Blake Mazza led the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage last season, missing just one kick. Through two games, he still hasn’t missed this year. But he may have competition to be the conference’s top kicker. USC freshman Parker Lewis made four field goals against Utah and leads the Pac-12 with six.

USC has overcome its coronavirus setbacks — for now — as it preps for a Washington State team that is just as much ground-and-pound as it is run-and-shoot.

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Of note

All four of USC’s opponents this season did not play the week prior to their meeting. The Trojans will at least have tape of their opponent this week. Washington State will be USC’s first opponent to have already played this season.

Injury report

Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote remained in the concussion protocol for the second consecutive week and is unlikely to play on Saturday. … Ralen Goforth, USC’s other starter at inside linebacker, is expected to be a game-time decision as he deals with a significant mid-foot sprain. Washington State running back Max Borghi, who injured his back during preseason camp, returned to practice this week and could make his season debut.


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