WazzuWatch - Preview: Cougs host USC in Pac-12 opener
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Preview: Cougs host USC in Pac-12 opener

Washington State wraps up its season-opening three-game homestand Saturday against USC at Gesa Field.

Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. PT on FOX.

Southern California is wounded. It’s smarting after losing at home to Stanford, watching any College Football Playoff hopes evaporate, and finally dismissing Clay Helton as head coach after years of conjecture about his job security.

The tonic for the Trojans could be a trip to the Palouse and a matchup with Washington State that traditionally has gone in USC’s favor.

“Everybody has embraced the opportunity that we have set for us,” said USC interim coach Donte Williams, who became the team’s first Black head coach when he stepped in for the fired Helton. “The biggest thing is about going 1-0 today.”

Last Saturday’s dispiriting 42-28 loss at home to Stanford was the final straw for Helton, who was let go two days later. Williams, who was USC’s cornerbacks coach, will lead the team for the remainder of the season.

Williams is focused on correcting the mistakes that cost USC in the loss to Stanford, many of which were self-inflicted.

“This is the nature of college sport,” USC captain and punter Ben Griffiths said of Helton’s firing. “We understand that. As players, we’ve got a job to do and that’s finish off this season and that starts this week in our preparation and really locking in against a tough Washington State side.”

The Trojans (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) never led against Stanford and suffered their worst home loss to an unranked opponent in 21 years. But they remain dangerous. Their offense is led by quarterback Kedon Slovis, though he has yet to match some of the big numbers he posted a year ago. Slovis was 27 of 42 for 223 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the loss to Stanford.

Last year, Slovis had one of the best games of his career against Washington State in a 38-13 win. Slovis threw for nearly as many touchdowns (five) as incompletions (seven) against the Cougars.

This year, Slovis will face a Washington State secondary that has been slowed by injuries, meaning it could be a big day for Drake London and the Trojans’ deep group of pass catchers.

Washington State (1-1) will play its third consecutive home game to begin its season. The Cougars lost to Utah State in their opener then pounded FCS Portland State last Saturday.

The Cougars’ offense looked particularly good against the Vikings, and the team appears to have settled on Jayden de Laura as its starting quarterback. De Laura threw for three touchdowns and ran for another against Portland State in the 44-24 win.

Washington State also displayed a versatile running attack behind Max Borghi and Deon MacIntosh, who each scored a touchdown. Wide receiver and kick returner Travell Harris had a breakout game with 188 all-purpose yards and two touchdown receptions.

About USC: After a difficult, emotional week which opened with Clay Helton’s long-awaited ouster, USC must take its show on the road and move forward if it has any hope of salvaging the 2021 season. USC interim coach Donte Williams has assured there won’t be many major changes and that he plans to lean on his coordinators. But for his sake, he better hope both sides of the ball look better than they did last Saturday. This Saturday’s effort will tell us a lot about whether USC can actually save its season, post-Helton.

About Washington State: It’s not a great sign when the story of your season so far is the coach’s refusal to comply — or, at least, confirm his compliance — with university policy regarding vaccination for COVID-19. That’s where Washington State finds itself after two weeks of the season. The Cougars have already lost to Utah State and needed an FCS tune-up last week against Portland State to set the table for USC. Weird things tend to happen in Pullman, but this is a lopsided matchup as far as talent is concerned. USC pummeled Washington State at the Coliseum last season, but the off-the-field variables at play this week make matters a bit more uncertain on the road.

Why USC Will Win: The talent is there – it’s just not playing well. There’s never a good time to fire a head coach who needs to go, but two games into a season certainly doesn’t do much for a team trying to figure it all out on the fly. It wasn’t just one bad day against Stanford that launched Clay Helton – it was the direction of the program all while UCLA appears to be ascending. There’s enough in place to turn this around fast, though, and now the pressure is essentially off. There won’t be a weekly Helton On The Hot Seat thing. It’ll be up to new interim head man Donte Williams to take a team full of good players and making it all work, and it starts with the passing game going off. Kedon Slovis hasn’t been bad, and this week he should throw at will against a Washington State defense that doesn’t have a pass rush and struggled in its first two games. Once the O gets going, everything else should fall into place.

Why Washington State Will Win: So what’s really the problem at USC? It was able to get by San Jose State with relative ease, and chalk up the Stanford game to a bad day. However, there hasn’t been anything from the defensive line so far – it’s not getting behind the line – and there are WAY too many penalties and mistakes so far. Wazzu has a similar problem to USC’s – the talent in place isn’t producing yet. Turnovers aren’t an issue, and the parts are there to start doing a whole lot more to keep the chains moving, and again, USC probably won’t bring the pressure.

SERIES HISTORY: Washington State trails the all-time series with USC 10-61-4 including a 4-14-2 mark in Pullman but claimed the last meeting in 2017, 30-27 on a Friday night game. The Trojans posted a 38-13 victory in Los Angeles on a Sunday evening matchup last December.

CONNECTIONS: The Cougars have a couple connections to the USC coaching staff as current offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Graham Harrell was on the WSU coaching staff for two seasons, working as an offensive analyst in 2014 before coaching the outside receivers in 2015. USC offensive coach Clay McGuire coached the Cougar offensive line for six seasons (2012-17).

A couple members of the Cougar coaching staff have worked on the USC staff; safeties coach Mark Banker coached the USC defensive line and linebackers in 1996, offensive analyst Dan Ferrigno coached the Trojan wide receives and special teams in 2000 and Cougar director of transfer recruiting Justin Mesa spent seven years (2006-12) on the USC coaching staff.

A pair of Cougar players have USC connections; wide out Carter Kamana's grandfather, John Kamana (center in 1953-54), and uncle, John Kamana (fullback and wide receiver in 1980-83), played at USC while longsnapper Simon Samarzich's father, Dave Samarzich, attended USC, where he roomed with former Trojan and NFL offensive line great Bruce Matthews.

(WazzuWatch Publisher Scott Hood, Associated Press and Yahoo all contributed to this report).