As the proud new owners of the nation's #4 rank, the Huskies presumably control their own destiny with regard to the College Football Playoff. That stance will be tested tomorrow by the #20 USC Trojans, who arrive in Seattle as the owners of a five-game winning streak.
After a sluggish and disappointing 1-3 start, the men of Troy turned their season around when they handed the keys to the offense to redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who has proven to be one of the Pac-12's brightest young stars at the position. In six games as USC's starting quarterback, Darnold has completed 68 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns and three interceptions for a passer rating of 173.37, a figure that trails only Jake Browning among Pac-12 quarterbacks.
On the defensive side, the Trojans are statistically mediocre at best, ranking fifth in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, ninth in sacks, sixth in tackles for loss, and ninth in interceptions. However, the presence of elite athletes such as cornerbacks Iman Marshall and Adoree' Jackson ensures that USC has the talent to hang with virtually anyone, including the impressive Washington offense.
While I saw a potential Washington blowout last week against Cal, I'm much more inclined to see tomorrow's game as a back-and-forth between teams playing at similarly high levels. While USC has the offensive talent to win this game if the Huskies slip, I'll give the edge to the home team based on home-field advantage and my belief that the Washington offense has a slight but decisive edge over the Trojan defense. Washington 38, USC 34.
Wake up, Dawg fans. We've got a live one.
USC visits Seattle tomorrow and presents the Huskies with what I think will be their biggest test of the season. Unlike Stanford, USC has a surging offensive capability founded on an enormous offensive line, a versatile receiving corps, and emerging playmakers at RB (Ronald Jones) and QB (Sam Darnold). Unlike Utah, USC has a balance of size and speed on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Unlike everybody else, USC's roster is chock full of four- and five-star talent that is just now finding its identity.
We still don't know everything that we need to know about USC to predict the outcome of this game with confidence. Of their six wins, only one has come against a winning team (Colorado). That by itself doesn't mean a whole lot, but consider that they've managed this winning streak while still maintaining a negative turnover margin on the season.
I like UW to win this, though I'm nervous. The weather conditions are likely to favor USC, as the team with the bigger offensive line and a running QB. But it does seem to me that UW is a more disciplined and efficient team. The Huskies ought to be able to move the ball enough to get some points on the board. That plus a couple of extra possessions resulting from USC turnovers ought to be enough. USC 24, UW 28.
USC comes into Husky Stadium as one of the hottest teams in America. The "USC is back" narrative is out in full force after a five-game winning streak over Arizona State, Colorado, Cal, Arizona, and Oregon. Much of that has been due to the emergence of Sam Darnold as QB, though no doubt playing the worst defenses in the Pac-12 (mostly at home) has helped. Regardless, he's been a playmaker for the Trojans, tossing 20 TDs and only 4 interceptions, while completing 67% of his passes. Most impressively, he's only been sacked three times and his combination of size and mobility is scary.
The Trojan ground game is strong too, with Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis toting the rock. Star WR Juju Smith-Schuster has been slowed down the past couple of weeks but still presents a threat that Sidney Jones will have to deal with. Outside of him, Darreus Rodgers and Deonte Burnett are good second and third options.
Ultimately, the key to this game on defense for Washington is the pass rush. Clearly Joe Mathis is and will be missed, but if the Huskies are able to get a consistent rush and a couple sacks, it will be a long night for USC. That's easier said than done, however, as USC has been great avoiding sacks. Giving Darnold time to throw is bad, and giving him a clean pocket to break free for big gains with his legs is even worse. Washington typically does not fare well against dual-threat QBs, but I see a mistake or two from Darnold in a tough environment like Husky Stadium. He's been criticized this year for fumbling the ball a number of times, and that could be key this weekend.
On offense, Washington needs to keep doing what it's been doing: blowing the tops off defenses with big pass plays and then hitting them up the middle with big runs after the defense backs off. More than any opponent so far, USC has the athletes to run deep with John Ross & Co. in single coverage, so what will Washington do if the deep passes aren't there? USC's defense overall is good, but is not particularly salty against the run. With Myles Gaskin having a slow game last week, look for him to break out this week.
Back in the friendly confines of Husky Stadium, I just can't see a USC win here. It'll be a really tough game, but I don't think USC's offense will click like it has recently. Washington might not go deep as much but could find some success running, especially if senior DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu can't play after reinjuring his knee against Oregon. Washington's starters play four quarters and pull away late. Washington wins, 38-24.
Raise your hand if you don't like the idea of the Huskies going up against a mobile quarterback. It definitely adds a wrinkle that can conjure visions of Arizona's Brandon Dawkins running wild on the Dawgs back in September.
The bad news for Husky fans is that Sam Darnold of USC is a dual-threat QB and a very good runner. The good news is that he is more of a bulldozer and less of a jet. Dawkins was healthy at the time and faster than all but a few UW defenders, while Darnold can be run down by almost everyone on the Husky defense. Still, those 8-15 yard scrambles can be killers if they keep happening. The Dawgs must not over-pursue in the pocket. On offense, it has to be business as usual with some large chunk plays to keep the USC defense on their heels and guessing.
The Trojans have a talented roster with some of the best skill players in the Pac-12, but I'm not ready to call them a complete team. They are improving, however, so this will not be easy if the Trojans can limit mistakes. More unlikely than likely that they can pull off a clean game in Seattle, but I still think it's close. UW 31, USC 24.