Nov 5, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Ronald Jones II (25) celebrates with quarterback Sam Darnold (14) after scoring on a 23-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against the Oregon Ducks during a NCAA football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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With the chance to notch a signature victory, the keys to victory for USC vs Washington include playing clean football and leaning on elite talent.
Everything has been leading up to this. With five consecutive victories under their belts, USC has the chance to prove their worth against the No. 4 Washington Huskies in a prime time match up on Saturday.
The question now on everyone’s mind: Is USC for real this time?
The Trojans have precedent to fuel their hopes of completing the upset. Surging USC teams in 2013 and 2015 found the way to down highly-ranked opposition. But this is a particularly difficult task compared to those, on the road at Husky Stadium.
Here’s five keys for the Trojans to achieve victory over the Huskies:
Unbalance The Huskies
Washington’s offense has been practically unstoppable this season thanks to a perfectly balanced attack.
With Myles Gaskin running behind a solid offensive line, UW can pound the rock. With Jake Browning playing as efficiently as any quarterback in the country and duo of explosive receivers at his disposal, the Huskies can expose even the most assured of secondaries.
Focus on stopping the run and they’ll go over the top. Keep the offense in front of you to prevent the big play and they’ll methodically drive down the field.
Disrupting that perfect balance is USC’s only hope to limit Washington’s scoring ability. It starts with nullifying the Husky running attack. The Trojans may have just enough athleticism to do that successfully, but individual performances front to back will be critical.
USC’s defense has been at it’s best this season when it has been aggressive on the defensive front, giving the likes of Porter Gustin, Uchenna Nwosu and Rasheem Green license to get into the opposition backfield. If the Trojans pin their ears back and attack, of course, it’ll be a risk, one which will put pressure on the back end of the defense. But risks are necessary when seeking great rewards.
The Trojans will need balance of their own to unbalance the Huskies — balanced performances between the front looking to disrupt the offense and the defensive backs tasked with providing the safety blanket in the back. Both sides must hold up their end of the task.
Sep 3, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies wide receiver John Ross (1) jumps over Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive back Saquan Hampton (9) on his way to a 92-yard kickoff return in the second quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Don’t Get Caught Napping
The Huskies have made a meal of many a defense this season simply by catching them off guard.
Chris Petersen is well-known for his tendency to use trick plays, but the exceptional timing and execution of those plays is what makes them so effective.
Nor is Washington reliant on just trick plays to take advantage of a napping defense. Play-action can be just as effective as a half back pass if defenders allow themselves to get sucked into the traps set by a ball-control offense capable of running the ball consistently.
“This week is going to be a real big test on the DBs eyes,” safety Chris Hawkins said this week. “Our eyes tell us the story. So once we see something, we’ve got to believe it, but we’ve also got to be safe with it because they do have big play-action shots.”
Jake Browning’s ability to hit the long ball to targets like John Ross and Dante Pettis has helped make the Huskies so formidable this year. USC’s defensive backs will have to be particularly on top of their game to avoid becoming the latest victims of that offensive attack.
Adoree’ Jackson relishes the opportunity to face an explosive talent like Ross. However, the most critical piece of the puzzle figures to be his partner on the other side, Iman Marshall. Slowed by a hamstring injury this week and already susceptible to being beat with speed, Marshall’s play will be key.
Nov 5, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Ronald Jones II (25) scores on a 23-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against the Oregon Ducks during a NCAA football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Play Clean Football
More than half of Washington’s drives in 2016 have gone for touchdowns, placing them first in the nation by that measure by some distance. At the same time, Washington’s opponents have scored touchdowns on less than 15 percent of their drives.
How have the Huskies been so efficient at scoring while their opposition has been so markedly inefficient? They don’t turn the ball over. They also force a lot of turnovers.
In fact, Washington is tops in the country when it comes to turnover margin, with a ratio of 22 turnovers gained to just seven turnovers lost.
USC, on the other hand, ranks 74th in that measure having turned the ball over more than they have forced takeaways. Over the past five games that hasn’t buried the Trojans, but it certainly contributed to the pivotal loss to Utah back in September and nearly cost them the victory over Colorado. A similarly careless outing would undoubtedly sink USC this time as well.
A successful upset bid will require the Trojans to play mostly mistake-free in the face of a team unlikely to make mistakes themselves.
“Any time you’re playing a ball control offense, you better play clean football because you’re going to have few possessions in the game,” Clay Helton said this week. “If you’re not good on third down, if you have penalties, you turn it over, you’re going to set yourself back against an offense that averages 48 points off 65 plays. You’re just not going to be able to catch up.”
Having coughed up the ball in all but two games this season, ball security will no doubt play a role in victory or defeat for the Trojans.
October 8, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) runs the ball against the defense of Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Jimmie Gilbert (98) during the first half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Be Elite Sam Darnold
This week, the Davey O’Brien Award listed Sam Darnold among the semifinalists for the honor given to the nation’s top quarterback.
The Trojan QB is now tasked with validating that recognition by navigating against one of the elite defenses in college football.
Darnold has been exceptional since taking over for Max Browne in September. His quarterback rating of 168.10 is seventh nationally. His playmaking ability has transformed the USC offense.
However, his success has come against some fairly weak defenses, including defensive bottom dwellers like ASU, Arizona, Oregon and Cal. His QB rating against teams without winning records is 179.54.
The good news is that Darnold has faced a pair of strong defenses as a starter, with fairly impressive performances in both outings. Utah’s pass defense ranks No. 39 in S&P+ while Colorado’s is a particularly strong No. 11, one spot ahead of Washington’s.
Darnold was not perfect in either game, making critical mistakes when it comes to ball security in both, but he was excellent throwing the ball, completing 68 percent of his passes with a mark of 9.7 yards per attempt. Even against two stout defenses, the redshirt freshman was capable of being a difference maker.
The key against Washington is applying the lessons learned from those games. If Darnold can replicate the instinctual play-making while cutting out the youthful mistakes, USC will be difficult to slow down.
The Trojans know that Darnold can be elite. When asked if Jake Browning was the best quarterback in the Pac-12, one USC defender gave his vote to No. 14.
“I think we’ve got the best [QB in the Pac-12],” said safety Chris Hawkins. “I haven’t played them all, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you that, but I know we’ve got the best.”
USC’s best chance of beating the Huskies will be in the quarterback living up to his teammates’ belief.
Sep 3, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The last time USC played such a highly-ranked team on the road, things didn’t turn out so well.
After holding their own in the first quarter of the season opener against Alabama, the Trojans were exposed in the second quarter with a flurry of Tide scoring which essentially put the game away.
The wheels fell off USC in what felt like an instant. One minute, they were hanging with the best team in the nation. The next they were in a panic, allowing 17 unanswered points, committing silly penalties and letting the occasion get the best of them.
Washington is one of the most explosive teams in the country this year. The Huskies have hit 25 pass plays of 30 or more yards, which is sixth-best in the country.
Odds are, Jake Browning will find one of his receivers down field for a long touchdown, just as Jalen Hurts punished the Trojans on opening day.
The difference this time around for USC needs to be composure. Husky Stadium will be an even more raucous environment than AT&T Stadium was, but the team that faced Alabama is not the same one taking the field in Seattle.
The Trojans have spent five weeks building confidence, in the players, the coaches, the schemes and their overall identity. That confidence must be a shield against the panic that can arise in a hostile environment with so much on the line.