USC set to face balanced Washington offense
LOS ANGELES (AP) Southern California defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's biggest strength is taking away the opposing offense's biggest strength.
However, there is no obvious strength to attack this week against No. 4 Washington. The Huskies' offense is as balanced as it gets, averaging 268.4 yards passing per game and 231 yards rushing.
''You just don't know,'' Trojans cornerback Adoree Jackson said Wednesday. ''Either or, they are deadly.''
Pendergast's tactical prowess has been on display during USC's five-game winning streak, holding opponents under their season scoring average by 14.5 points per game and total offense average by 100.2 yards. Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon each failed to top 96 yards rushing in that span, but players offered no hints that stopping the run is the priority on Saturday.
''I think it's 50-50,'' safety Chris Hawkins said. ''I know their pass game relies heavily on their run game. We got to be real disciplined this week.''
That balance extends to the composition of the Huskies' passing offense, where Hawkins sees two equal threats in receivers John Ross and Dante Pettis. Ross is tied for second among FBS players with 14 touchdown receptions, but Hawkins said that production is a reflection of having another threat on the other side of the formation.
''I don't think Dante Pettis gets enough credit for how good he really is,'' Hawkins said. ''It's hard to just pick on one receiver and say we can double-team this guy. You can't do that when you got a dude over there who is a first-team (all-conference) caliber player. They balance each other out. This is one of the most balanced offenses I have seen in a long time.''
Clues as to what Pendergast might do against Washington could come from the 21-17 win over the Buffaloes, another offense that strives for balance between rush and pass. USC aimed to limit the run and allowed a stingy 3.3 yards per carry, forcing Colorado into third-and-long on 13 of its 17 tries.
The USC defense does catch a break as Washington is among the handful of Pac-12 teams not playing at a breakneck pace, breaking a streak of five consecutive opponents that used sustained tempo on offense. That could be beneficial to defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who aggravated a knee injury against the Ducks.
The redshirt senior transfer from Utah had a platelet-rich plasma injection earlier this week and coach Clay Helton is pleased with Tu'ikolovatu's recovery, though he has not practiced yet this week. Tu'ikolovatu has started all but one game this season, offering a veteran presence to an inexperienced defensive front.
''Looks like he is showing signs of life and I wouldn't be surprised if he plays in this game,'' Helton said.
Helton credited improvement on the defensive line as a major key to USC's winning streak, accounting for six tackles for loss with 3 1/2 sacks.
''They feel like they are playing in the other team's backfield and that's what you really hope for. It's a big man's game, and the offensive and defensive lines have led us the past five games.''
Between that progress and Pendergast's scheming, Helton is optimistic USC can stop Washington's main strength on offense. But what that is, Helton won't say.
''Not to give away the game plan, I really like what he is getting ready to do in this game,'' Helton said. ''He's identified exactly what he feels the strength is and we'll see how it goes.''
NOTES: Cornerback Iman Marshall (hamstring) and running backs Justin Davis (ankle) and Aca'Cedric Ware (ankle) all returned to practice Wednesday. Offensive lineman Damien Mama is expected to practice Thursday after having a cyst in his knee drained.