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High stakes for Trojans: Three things to watch for in USC vs. Washington State

USC running back Travis Dye scores a touchdown during a win over Fresno State on Sept. 17.
USC running back Travis Dye, left, scores a touchdown during a win over Fresno State on Sept. 17. Dye knows the Trojans can’t afford to underestimate anyone, including Washington State on Saturday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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Travis Dye has been around football long enough to see the signs: The emotional road win in Corvallis. The less-than-stellar week of practice that followed. The sloppy start against Arizona State. Sure, the ship was eventually righted in a 42-25 win, USC’s fifth straight to start the season. But the effort was enough to remind the fifth-year senior running back how hard it is to keep winning — and how quickly a letdown could come.

He passed along that message after the Arizona State game on Saturday.

“We need to put our main focus on the little stuff and just realizing that winning does not come easy. It’s not something that you just get used to,” Dye said. “You have to come in, week in, week out with everything you have. Because you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. That’s just how it is. When you go to USC with all this hype around you, you’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

Princess Lang fought to create USC Cardinal Divas, a majorette squad brushing off allegations of HBCU appropriation and sharing its joy of dancing.

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The next two weeks, in that regard, represent the truest test of the Trojans’ mettle — not to mention their College Football Playoff semifinal bonafides — this season. Washington State, at 4-1, boasts one of the better defenses in the conference, while Utah was the preseason Pac-12 title favorite. How USC fares against both could very well determine the direction of its season.

USC hasn’t opened a season 6-0 since 2006, the year after the Trojans lost in the national title game to Texas. Unlike that team, which was coming off an unparalleled stretch of success, this one is still very much learning how to win.

“It’s a daily fight. I mean, it is,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “I use ‘fight’ because that’s just the only way you get better. You’ve got to strain. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. It’s a process to understand that, right? There’s some of it you can learn before, and we try to pack as much of that in as we possibly can. There’s some of it that’s not going to take hold until you actually get in some of these situations as a team and individually.”

Those situations are coming soon enough.

Here are three things to watch for when USC faces Washington State on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. PDT (Fox; Fox Sports app):

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Another dual threat

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward throws a pass against Colorado State on Sept. 17.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

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Alex Grinch would probably rather not see another capable running quarterback. But after largely containing Emory Jones last week, USC’s defensive coordinator has a more dangerous dual threat to deal with this Saturday.

It didn’t take long for Cameron Ward to prove he belonged in the Pac-12, after transferring from Football Championship Subdivision Incarnate Word. His 1,445 yards ranks third in the conference, just ahead of USC’s Caleb Williams. But Ward has thrown seven interceptions this season, including four over the past two weeks. Williams just threw his first last Saturday.

Baiting Ward into making mistakes in the passing game could be key for USC, which leads the nation in interceptions (12). Containing his ability to extend plays could be another story.

Grinch said Ward had the ability to “make a bad play a good play really quick.”

“That’s why everybody loves having scrambling quarterbacks,” Grinch said. “We certainly love having ours.”

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Rice rising

USC wide receiver Brenden Rice runs the ball during a win over Arizona State on Oct. 1.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

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We’ve already witnessed breakout performances from Jordan Addison, Mario Williams and even Tahj Washington among USC’s receivers. This week, Riley seemed to call his shot on which receiver would be next.

Brenden Rice has at least three catches in each of USC’s past three games and tallied 72 yards receiving last Saturday.

“He’s doing some really good things on tape,” Riley said Monday on the Trojans Live radio show. “I feel like he’s right on the verge of a breakout game for us.”

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Tight end time?

USC tight end Lake McRee runs after making a catch against Stanford on Sept. 10.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

Lincoln Riley used his tight ends at Oklahoma unlike any other coach in college football. But through five games of his tenure at USC, we haven’t seen much from the Trojans’ tight ends at all.

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Lake McRee and Malcolm Epps, the only two tight ends to be targeted this season, have combined for a target share of just 6.3% in USC’s passing game. That’s less than half of the target share tight ends saw in USC’s 2021 offense (13.6%), when much was made of their limited role. At Oklahoma, Riley’s 2021 offense targeted tight ends 22% of the time.

Injuries to Jude Wolfe, who was expected to play H-back, as well as McRee have made involving the tight end a bit more complicated. But with McRee expected to play this weekend, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we see USC’s tight ends step into more significant roles.

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