The last 3 Washington victories over USC (going back to 2001) have been by margins of three, five, and three points. The 90s were kinder to the Dawgs and saw larger margins of victory, including two shutouts, totaling 58-0. All of this is to say, I think we’re in for a very close game on Saturday.
USC offensively against the Husky defense will be a challenge as Matt Fink has some mobility to him and will be throwing to the best WR unit Washington will face all season, by far. USC has struggled to run the ball - though 235 pound freshman Markese Stepp has been impressive - but the pass game has been generating plenty of yards and 9 TDs through four games. Fink balled out against Utah coming off the bench, but prepping the whole week as a starter is entirely different. Fink really seemed to be playing on instinct, without over thinking. I think he could regress a bit not play as “free” on Saturday. I imagine the Huskies are going to drop 8 into coverage and rush just 3, hoping to confuse Fink, and maybe get some pressure against an OL that has been up and down this year.
On defense, USC will be missing CB Olaijah Griffin and S Talanoa Hufanga, which will help the Huskies generate big plays. The Trojans can be a bit undisciplined and give up 3rd downs because of stupid penalties, and Washington will need to take advantage of that. But, they still have play makers in the back end like Isaiah Pola-Mao who can hurt the Huskies. The offense hasn’t fared too well recently against athletic defenses, so they will need to finish drives with points when USC gifts them penalty yards. However, the USC defensive line has been really impressive this year, led by Jay Tufele and freshman Drake Jackson. Also some guy named Marlon Tuipolotu is pretty good. Generating run yards up the middle will be tough and the Huskies need to exploit the edges. If Salvon Ahmed is healthy I expect a big game from him.
Washington wins a tight one.
Washington- 27, USC- 24
Jacob Eason is rolling. The Husky offense seems to be feeling itself. Washington’s defense has taken a step back this year, but still hasn’t allowed more than 20 points to an opponent through the first four games. That might change on Saturday as USC’s receiving corps is too talented to keep entirely out of the end zone, regardless of who’s throwing them the ball. Even with USC sending out Fink, I can see them taking a lot of deep shots down the field and challenging our relatively young secondary. There’s a good chance the Huskies cash in on those deep balls and get a couple of interceptions, but USC will catch their fare share of the 50/50 balls and make those receptions count.
However, what I’m really curious to see is if USC shies away from their air-raid offense just a little bit to incorporate more of their running game behind the very talented Malepeai. Turning to the run seemed to hurt them against BYU and they didn’t hold Fink back against Utah’s good secondary, but on the road and against this specific Husky defense, the ground game might serve them well. We’ll have to wait and see how that one plays out. Regardless, I think being in what is sure to be a packed Husky stadium will help Washington’s defense, while USC’s defense is missing a couple of key pieces and will have a tough time slowing the Huskies’ offense down.
Washington- 38, USC- 24
Going strictly by the numbers, this game shouldn’t scare the Huskies terribly much. It’s a home game against a team that lost to a mutual opponent that UW smashed. USC hasn’t won a road game this year and two of their three wins have been by a single score. Their starting QB is out for the year. The presumptive backup transferred. Kedon Slovis, who was forced into backup duty, might miss the game with a concussion. Going strictly by what we’ve seen on the field, UW looks like the safer bet.
Of course, there’s always another layer to the story with USC, which has a lot to do with the fact that they have the most underlying raw talent in the conference. How that talent is coached and developed is subject to interpretation. Defensively, they’re fast, powerful, and aggressive. Their ferocious d-line might leave some holes for Sean McGrew to slither through. It would be great if Salvon Ahmed could get back on the field and break one open. The play-action game will be paramount due to the defensive aggression. Jacob Eason will have to play smart and find guys like Hunter Bryant and Puka Nacua, who won’t be physically overwhelmed by the Trojan secondary. Talanoa Hufanga, USC’s star safety, is likely out of the game with a concussion, which removes a security blanket from the back end.
On the other side of the ball, USC will go heavy in the air raid. Despite the presence of the excellent Stephen Carr at RB, they aren’t even trying to run the ball. Either Slovis or Matt Fink will have three of the best receivers in the country to throw to. Against Utah, Fink routinely underthrew them and they all (Michael Pittman, especially) came back to the ball to make something out of nothing over smaller DBs. The UW defensive backfield will have to be ready for those underthrows. Jimmy Lake has dominated WSU’s version of the air raid, so I expect them to be ready.
Washington- 31, USC- 20
This is gonna be interesting for Washington’s offense in that this will be the first potent-ish pass rush since Cal. Drake Jackson’s especially been great off the edge as a true freshman, while the duo of Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele in the middle has made inside runs difficult for opposing offenses. At the same time, the secondary has a significant physical advantage over Washington’s receivers.
Yet given their talent advantage over *checks notes* ummmmmmeveryone, the Trojans’ defense is still way less invincible than they should be. It’s not like they don’t play well -- it’s just that they play well until they goof up fundamentally, which is more often than it should be. For example, giving up a 30 yard run on 2nd and 25 to Zack Moss. Is that kind of thing common? No. Is it present enough where this team’s not mega-intimidating? For sure.
Considering their defensive tendencies, I feel way better about this offense’s potential after seeing last week that Eason’s able to A) throw accurately in incredibly small windows and B) that the receivers decided to not dink around drop all these passes. Because those are the kind of opportunities that will come often on Saturday.
Production-wise, this is gonna be a game decided by Eason’s arm and the running backs’ ability to fall forward. Enter Richard Newton on the ground -- and Hunter Bryant, in all likelihood, as the recipient of a plurality of Eason’s targets.
For Washington’s defense, the receivers they’ll be covering are ridiculous. The running backs are quite good too. The offensive line is mostly alright. And the quarterback, assuming it’s Matt Fink, is, uh, relying on those other guys. Don’t get me wrong, he was fine at his job last week, but that was mostly because “his job” was just chucking it blindly to overpowering receivers. It was like playing flyers up on a school playground. And, honestly, the success of that method doesn’t feel like it’ll fly over a large sample size.
Then, looking at the metrics: against FBS opponents, USC scores on average 11 points more than their opponents on average give up. Washington scores on average almost 15 points more than their opponents on average give up. Against FBS opponents, Washington’s scoring defense is almost 20 (19.7, to be exact), while USC’s is 24. Add those up, the score should look something like Washington 39, USC 31.
Similarly, USC’s defense on average holds FBS opponents to exactly their average scoring, while UW’s defense holds FBS opponents to 9 points less than their scoring average. That would put this score at roughly Washington 38, USC 24.
Purely averaging those, it’d be Washington 38.5, USC 27.5. In other words, who has any idea. Let’s go with:
Washington- 35, USC- 24
If you were assessing this game from a pure “recruiting rankings talent” standpoint the Trojans would definitely be favorites in this game. Luckily, that isn’t the only thing to consider. There was some thought before the season that the Trojans would completely quit on Clay Helton after they ran into a buzz saw of an opening 6 weeks which doomed their season. And maybe following consecutive road losses to Washington and Notre Dame that ends up happening. But for now this team is absolutely in a strong enough position to snap up and play to their talent level in selected games.
Utah should have one of if not the best defense in the conference and they still gave up 30 points to USC despite the Trojans having to play with their 3rd string QB essentially all game. However, their defensive strength (their front 4) was largely neutralized by quicker ball movement and their DBs were repeatedly killed by jump balls in man-to-man coverage against USC’s terrifying WR group. The Husky defense isn’t going to do that. Instead they’re going to play this game like BYU who dropped 8 into coverage to disrupt the passing lanes. From a statistical standpoint the UW defense and USC offense are ranked similarly in a plethora of categories (within one spot in both yards per play and yards per attempt) and it wouldn’t surprise me if they play to a near standstill in this one to the tune of 21 or so points.
However, I think the Husky offense has a clear advantage over USC’s defense. The Trojans have been disappointing on that end so far and rank 100th in the country in explosive rate by giving up a big play on about 1 out of every 6 snaps. Even if Salvon Ahmed isn’t back I have enough confidence in the health of the offense to exploit the holes whether that’s Sean McGrew, Hunter Bryant, or blown coverage on Fuller or Baccellia. The one hiccup I can see is that the Trojans are 11th in the country in Red Zone TD% which isn’t exactly a strong suit for Washington. The best chance for the Dawgs is to have multiple 25+ yard touchdowns which negates their strength in short yardage while exploiting USC’s weakness of the big play. And on top of all of that USC is going to be without perhaps its best defensive player in Talanoa Hufanga who was a one man wrecking crew against Utah.
I felt strangely confident about the Huskies traveling to BYU and I’ve got a similarly good feeling about USC. If Washington ends up in a close game I expect it to be because the Dawgs were forced to settle for field goals in the red zone and Michael Pittman and Co. managed to catch some 50/50 balls for long gains against our young DBs.
Washington- 34, USC- 21
THE FINAL TALLY
Straight Up: Washington- 5, USC- 0
Against the Spread (UW -10.5): Washington- 4, USC- 1
Average Score: Washington- 33, USC- 22.6