Keys to victory against USC

Cougs need big offensive performance to pull off upset against USC

WSU+defesnive+back+Halid+Djibril+stands+on+the+sideline+with+teammates+during+a+Sept.+11+game+against+Portland+State+in+Martin+Stadium.

ABBY SONNICHSEN

WSU defesnive back Halid Djibril stands on the sideline with teammates during a Sept. 11 game against Portland State in Martin Stadium.

AARIK LONG, Evergreen sports editor

The Cougs will have their hands full this weekend when the Trojans come to town. Both teams are coming in, having been upset in one of their first two matches. USC came into the season as a Pac-12 favorite, while WSU was expected to skim into a bowl game.

As of Wednesday morning, USC is an 8.5-point favorite. The Trojans have won 11 national championships that they claim. The Cougs have won none. 

On paper, this should be an easy win for USC. There’s a reason we do not play these games on paper, though.

There are four main keys to success that, if WSU can hit, the Cougs can win this game. Offense is the key to this team winning any game, so let’s start there.

Throw the ball

I know, I know. This is a very unpopular opinion. I do not think this should always be the game plan. But for this weekend, it should be. The Trojans match up exceptionally against the rush.

WSU’s expected starting offensive line averages to a run block grade of just 57.9, according to Pro Football Focus. If you compare that to USC’s defensive line that averages to a rush defense grade of 72.3, it is clear why the Cougs should be throwing a bit more in this game. 

That starting line is made up of Liam Ryan, Jarrett Kingston, Konner Gomness, Cade Beresford and Abraham Lucas.

When you jump over to pass grades for those two units, USC still has an advantage, but it is so small that it is basically negligible. The Cougs average to 66.3 and the Trojans sit at 66.7. The Cougs are much more capable of being able to throw some blocks for Jayden de Laura than they are for Max Borghi.

Taking it a step further, averaging the USC secondary’s coverage grade for the first two weeks gives you a 61.5. If you take WSU’s top four receivers, two running backs and de Laura and average all of their receiving grade (and de Laura’s passing grade), it comes out to an average of 63.4. 

The numbers speak for themselves. But even when watching film, you can see the offensive line struggles to block for Borghi, often leaving him to make a play. He can make those plays, but it should not all be on him.

O-line must be better

Similar to the last point, the five men upfront for the Cougs have to play better. The level they have played at the first couple of weeks will not cut it against a team as good as USC. If WSU is able to get Brian Greene back, that would be a huge help in improving this line. 

Having Gomness playing at center is bad news for WSU. All three running backs have better pass-blocking grades than Gomness, while two of three have better run-blocking grades. 

Gomness is a liability on the offensive line. He either needs to step it up this week or the Cougs need a new center to face the Trojans. 

Ryan at left tackle has not been particularly great either. WSU could try moving Ma’ake Fifita over to Ryan’s position. Fifita has proven to be a versatile player. The natural guard has taken a third of his snaps at left tackle this season. Bring him over to Ryan’s spot and the run blocking grade drops a little for the team, but the pass blocking jumps enough to make up for that. 

The change would drop the team’s rush blocking grade by less than a point and raise the pass blocking grade by six points.

Granted these are all just hypothetical numbers at this point and Fifita has a small sample size, but the line has to get better and the guard has shown an ability to block in the passing game. 

The run blocking would likely be hurt just a smidge, but honestly, this season the rushing attack has not had their success because of the offensive line. It has been almost entirely because of the running backs and their talents.

Let de Laura cook

Last season in the NFL, “Let Russ Cook” was all the rage amongst Seahawks fans. Coug fans need to adjust this same motto to their college team. 

De Laura is the highest-graded player on the whole team. He has shown an incredible ability to escape pressure. He was the highest-graded quarterback in the Pac-12 this past weekend and the 14th highest graded QB in the nation.

You are starting to see a real connection between de Laura and some of his receivers, particularly Calvin Jackson Jr. and De’Zhaun Stribling. If the Cougs can capitalize on those connections, they could be the difference-maker this week.

De Laura has been best this season when throwing the ball deep. He looks the most comfortable on these plays and has been incredibly efficient. On balls more than 20 yards downfield, the quarterback has completed 40 percent of passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions. 

When he is not throwing the ball, de Laura is a massive threat with his legs. On scrambles this season, the quarterback is averaging 7.9 yards per carry and has picked up a first down on three of seven attempts. 

Hand the reigns over to de Laura. Let the quarterback do his thing and maybe he will win the game for the Cougs.

Secondary must survive

WSU’s secondary coming into the season was pretty strong. Derrick Langford Jr., Jaylen Watson, Armani Marsh and Daniel Isom headlined a really good pass stopping backfield. 

However, injuries galore have ravished this defense. Midweek, we are not really sure where we stand with injuries, as head coach Nick Rolovich will not really say, but many players, including Isom and Watson, have seen injuries so far this year. Watson left the game against Portland State and did not return.

Watson was a former USC recruit, making this game even more important to him. Coug fans everywhere need to form a collective prayer circle that Watson plays in this game.

USC’s quarterback Kedon Slovis graded out very well against San Jose State in the opener but struggled last week against Stanford. Do not let that game against the Cardinal fool you. Slovis is a real threat against just about any defense in the nation. 

The game against Stanford was worse than more than half of his performances last season. So, do not put too much stock in that performance. It was not great at all, but he is capable of much better. 

Even that poor performance could upset the Cougs. Logan Bonner in week one for Utah State recorded a grade just five points higher. It has been shown that it does not take an incredible quarterback performance to beat the Cougs.

The WSU secondary will have to step it up if they expect to win this game. The defensive front will need to put some pressure on Slovis and the offensive line. But ultimately, the defensive responsibility will fall on the guys trying to break up passes.