Washington can prove its worth against USC
No. 4 Washington might still have critics because of its strength of schedule. USC has doubters, too, unable to break into the Associated Press poll, despite a five-game winning streak.
Each team will have its chance for a major statement Saturday in Seattle.
In what looks to be the biggest game of the week in college football — ESPN's College GameDay will be there to preview the 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff — the matchup will have big implications for the national and Pac-12 races.
The Huskies (9-0 overall, 6-0 Pac-12) enter the weekend coming off a 66-27 victory at Cal. USC (6-3, 5-2 Pac-12) handled Oregon 45-20, holding the Ducks to 288 total yards, their lowest total since 2009.
“USC is right back to USC,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen. “You just watch the tape.”
Two of the best young quarterbacks in the country will face off for the first time.
Washington sophomore Jake Browning, with his six-touchdown performance against the Bears, boosted his passer rating to a national-best 202.79.
That puts him on track to break the 5-year-old FBS record of 191.78, set by Wisconsin's Russell Wilson in 2011. Browning has thrown 34 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He has 2,273 passing yards and a 67.7 completion percentage.
Browning already owns Washington's single-season record for touchdown passes and is on pace to break Jared Goff's Pac-12 record of 43, set last season.
“Great quarterbacks always have great decision-making, timing and accuracy,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “That's what you see from the kid. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is incredible.”
USC's season turned when Helton inserted redshirt freshman Sam Darnold as his starting quarterback in the fourth game. That was a 31-27 loss to the Utes, who scored in the final minute, but the Trojans have ripped off five in a row since then, winning four by at least 21 points.
Darnold is ranked seventh nationally — and first among freshmen — in passer rating with a mark of 168.1. He has completed 146 of 215 passes for 1,874 yards, with 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. Like Browning, his mobility keeps defenses honest and opens up the field for a great supporting cast.
“He's not really a freshman when you look at how many games he's played now and the things he's seen,” Petersen said.
“He's doing a really good job. You couple that with the receivers, and it's like, 'Who's that? Who's that? Who's that?' You've got five or six guys, and I think their hard decision is trying to figure out who should get the ball the most, the tailback or receivers.”
The quarterbacks aren't even eligible for the 2017 draft, and neither are the two main tailbacks — Washington's Myles Gaskin (952 yards, eight touchdowns) and USC's Ronald Jones II (393 yards in the past two games). They are second-year sophomores.
These teams are so loaded otherwise that they combine for 12 of the top 136 prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
Here are two big-time matchups in the passing game: Washington receiver John Ross III (14 touchdown receptions) vs. USC cornerback Adoree' Jackson, and, on the other side, USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Washington corners Sidney Jones and Kevin King.
Ross and Jackson are dynamic in the return game, too.
Up front, USC tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner — deemed to be top 100 prospects — have to handle a pair of top 100 defensive line prospects in Vita Vea and Elijah Qualls, among other Husky standouts the line.
“For the fifth game in a row, I thought the offensive line set the tone,” Helton said after his offense gashed the Ducks for 270 rushing yards. “The holes they were creating, a good running back can go a long way.”
Said Petersen: “This (USC) offensive line is really, really good. Really good. And I don't say that a lot.”
The true strength of Washington's defense — which is 11th nationally in points allowed at 17.0 points per game — is its secondary, led by Budda Baker. The Huskies allow just 5.6 yards per pass attempt, the fifth-best mark in the country.
While Washington is playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, USC needs a win to stay competitive in the Pac-12 South. They are a half-game behind Colorado (5-1) and a half-game ahead of Utah (4-2). USC holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Buffaloes. The Trojans likely would need too much help to win the division if they lost to Washington or UCLA to end the conference season.
“I'm glad we're playing at home,” Petersen said. “It'll be a heck of a game.”