Here's what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Sam Darnold is the second rated passer in the Pac-12 conference and USC’s emergence has coincided with his good play. How in the hell did he not win the job from the get-go? Tell us about what he does well.
Nick Dempsey: It is curious why Max Browne initially got the start over Sam Darnold to start the season. There are many who like to play revisionist historian and claim that USC would have started the season 3-1 instead of 1-3 had Sam Darnold started from the outset (beating Stanford and Utah but still losing to Alabama). Clay Helton frankly never gave a solid answer why he Started Browne over Darnold and he generally botched the whole process. Last winter he said he was going to have the QB competition wrapped up by Spring, then he said he wanted to take the summer to evaluate them further. Two weeks prior to Alabama he named Browne the starter, then he said the QB competition was over, then he increasingly gave Darnold more snaps. Finally after week three he named Darnold the starter. The best answer I can give you is that Helton was really struggling to make good decisions as head coach at the time, though he now seems to have a few things figured out.
UWDP: JuJu Smith Schuster is having a great season (641 yards, 8TDs) which is a surprise to no one. What makes him so good? Darreus Rogers is also having a nice season with almost 500 yards. Tell us about the rest of the WR and TE corps.
Nick: For the first time in a very long time USC is spreading the ball around and getting tight ends involved in the pass game. This is huge departure from when Cody Kessler was the quarterback. Kessler would lock on hard to Juju Smith-Schuster whose explosiveness and power made him a great target but also easy to defend the passing game in general. Now Darnold is spreading the ball around. Nine different receivers had catches against Oregon last week and only 2 of the 28 receptions went to Juju. That ratio is almost a complete inversion from what we saw with Smith-Schuster last season. Last season the tight ends for USC were quite the storyline for all the wrong (off field) reasons. Long story short, there was almost zero production from the TEs last year. This season the tight ends are becoming Darnold’s favorite targets. It has been fun to watch and now opposing defenses have to account for every player on the field rather than just double or even triple Juju Smith-Schuster.
UWDP: The three headed monster of Ronald Jones II, Justin Davis, and Aca’Cedric Ware have USC averaging 5.6 yards per carry which is behind only Washington in the Pac-12. What role do each of them have in the offense? How has the offensive line performed in the running game as well as pass protection?
Nick: Ronald Jones II (RoJo) is the most explosive back in the unit. If that guy gets even a small crease he can make amazing things happen. Rojo is young though, and he struggles in pass blocking so we did not really see much of him early in the season when Max Browne was starting the and offensive line was struggling to protect. Justin Davis is the veteran running back who is not as explosive as Jones but is a more complete block he was really starting to get into a rhythm when he suffered a high ankle sprain in early October against Colorado. Davis will finally be worked back into the rotation on Saturday after missing the last 3 games but Jones has absolutely shown just how amazing he can be in Davis’ absence. Expect Jones to get the start with Davis rotating in and possibly some relief work from Aca’Cedric Ware.
UWDP: Despite great talent on the defensive side of the ball, USC ranks middle of the Pac-12 in every defensive category. Are fans frustrated by that? Has the defense improved as the season has progressed? Who are some key defenders to watch on Saturday?
Nick: The USC defense is young and inexperienced. Before the start of this season the defensive front seven had only one player (Cam Smith) with any major experience as a starter. The defense has come together and is playing quite well having kept high scoring offenses like Cal and Oregon to their lowest point totals of the season. While the USC defense is playing well their stats do not show it. Part of the reason for that is the offense is still quite sloppy with a ton of turnovers and drive killing penalties. This was particularly a problem against Utah and Stanford (both losses). Furthermore, during their 5 game winning streak the defense is doing just enough to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone but not making big plays that show up on the stat sheet. For example they are knocking quarterbacks off their spot and forcing bad throws but not getting sacks. They will occasionally give up a big chunk play, but will still manage to consistently get off the field on third downs.
The USC defense has certainly progressed but the Washington offense will be a huge test for them. The Huskies are loaded with talent and fundamentally sound. The Washington offensive efficiency is also unbelievable and statistically improbably. The margin for error for the Trojans defense seems razor thin. Cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson (#2) and Iman ‘biggie’ Marshall (#8) are going to have to play lights out all night to keep up with the likes of Ross and Pettis. Up front linebackers Cam Smith (#35) and Uchenna Nwosu (#42) can cause havoc in the backfield and may be the Trojans’ best answer for Gaskin. DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a senior transfer from Utah, is a consistently reliable tackler and able to clog up the middle.
UWDP: What’s the general feeling about Clay Helton at this point? There must have been some “Hot Seat” grumblings earlier in the season.
Nick: The “Fire Helton” crowd was roaring loudly but has been silenced since the end of September when the Trojans found themselves at 1-3. Many fans were wondering were convinced Helton would absolutely gone and had already jumped to possible coaching hires before USC rattled off 5 straight. Helton still has to show his team can compete with great teams like Washington, particularly on the road, but with 5 straight convincing wins he has silenced his critics for now.
UWDP: What is your prediction for this game?
Nick: USC is certainly red hot right now and playing some great football but Washington is a better, more complete team. Washington seems unbeatable at home this season while Clay Helton is 3-7 on the road as USC head coach. College football is the home of the upset to be sure, but for USC to win this I think his team will need to play the best game they’ve played all season, maybe the best game they’ve played in several years. The most likely scenario is a 7-14 point victory for the Huskies.
UWDP: Thanks Nick. To read or answers to Nick’s questions, click here.