• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into Washington

Trojans show resiliency and heart in victory over Utah- For a program constantly dealing with talk of its head coach on the hot seat and coming off a tough loss to a team they were expected to beat in BYU, grinding out a victory against Utah in the manner they did was extremely impressive. They showed resolve not expected from college- aged student athletes in this circumstance. QB Kedon Slovis gets knocked out of the game early and the Trojan defense was on the field for 2/3 of the game (38 minutes). Utah had the ball eight times in and around the USC red zone and on top of that, SC was flagged for penalties 11 times. Yet, the Trojan defense never “gave-in” and made big-time stops when needed and the offense, specifically the elite receiving core, rallied around their third string QB Matt Fink.

On the flip side, Utah willingly supported a Trojan victory- Yes, Utah reportedly had the ball inside the SC red zone eight times, three times inside the ten yard line, and only came away with 9 points. Uncharacteristically, Utah was flagged 16 times for 120 yards. Utah’s best player running back Zach Moss was injured in the first half and didn’t return. SC fought hard for the victory but Utah definitely did their part.

Washington QB Jacob Eason has NFL eyes all over him- The Junior Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, is a legit 6’6 pocket-passer that some NFL scouts believe is a top-5 NFL draft pick. He has one of the strongest arms in the nation when it comes to deep balls (70 plus yards) and can make throws into tight windows when least expected. In four games, he has 1,063 passing yards, a 73.1 completion percentage, 10 TDs and just two interceptions. He has logged a passer rating of no less than 193.10 in three of his four outings. The Huskies' passing attack is ranked #43 in the nation at 270.5 yards per game. This is coupled with a rushing attack that ranks #49 in the nation at 190.8 yards per game.

The flaws of Jacob Eason- He is easily the best pocket passer the Trojans have faced but he does not possess the escape-ability of the BYU’s Wilson or Utah’s Huntley, which provided plenty of headaches for the SC defense. Eason has so much confidence in his arm strength, he doesn’t always progress through his reads and believes he can make throws against tight coverage. He has done a better job in the last few weeks of not “over-cooking” the ball on short routes but earlier in the season, he would be off-target on short throws, putting too much heat on the ball making it difficult to catch. He specifically had this issue against the exceptional Cal secondary (best in the Pac-12) that held him to 162 yards and 1 interception in their victory over the Huskies. Washington also gave up 4 sacks in the Cal game while only surrendering one in three other games combined.

The common opponent- BYU- Last weekend, Washington whooped a tired BYU team 45-19 in Provo. At first glance, one would think Washington is much better than the Trojans, who lost in OT in Provo. However, a deeper dive into the details diffuses some of that. It was BYU’s fourth straight game against a Power-5 school (only team in the nation to start the season with that schedule) with three of those teams being ranked. The Cougars turned the ball over three times and twice on downs resulting in 21 Washington points.

That said, Washington QB Jacob Eason looked terrific against the BYU defense whereas Trojans true freshman QB Kedon Slovis struggled with three interceptions. Washington did a much better job of containing BYU QB Zach Wilson and the BYU coaches feel that though the talent of SC and Washington is similar, Washington was the more prepared team from a coaching standpoint.

Recent history in the Trojans favor- In 2016, The Trojans knocked off 4th ranked Washington in Seattle, behind Sam Darnold and a great defensive effort. It will take a similar effort from Matt Fink (who plays a little like a poor man’s Darnold with his ability to escape the rush and prolong plays) and the Trojan defense to have a similar result.

Injury report- Defense- Devastating losses to the defensive backfield as Hufanga and Griffin sidelined vs. Washington- Safety Talanoa Hufanga, who had 14 tackles and seemed to be involved in every defensive play against Utah, has a sprained AC joint in his shoulder and has not been cleared from concussion protocol. Hufanga is used in a variety of spots and his versatility and football instincts play a significant role. He takes good pursuit angles and has a knack for reading plays early, especially in Run-Pass option situations. He is one of SC’s most disciplined defenders and not having him will limit what the Trojans can do defensively. CJ Pollard will likely take over at safety for the injured Hufanga.

CB Olaijah Griffin injured his back and did not play in the second half vs. Utah. Greg Johnson and Chris Steele had solid games in his absence, but Griffin had been the Trojans most reliable and consistent cornerback. The good news is CB Isaac Taylor-Stuart back from concussion protocol. Look for SC to slide Greg Johnson and Chris Steele to the outside while Chase Williams take over at the nickel cornerback position.

Fink will be targeted- With Kedon Slovis officially ruled out, the Trojans will not have a true quarterback to hand the ball to should Matt Fink get knocked out of the game. This is something the Washington defense is well aware of and it wouldn’t be surprising if things get dirty in this “must-win” game for the Huskies.

Next up for the Trojans would be walk-on Safety Brandon Purdue who was just 37 for 89 for 376 yards and 4 TD’s in junior college and served as Matt Corral’s (Mississippi QB) back-up at Oaks Christian. WR Tyler Vaughns, who has the best arm outside of the scholarship QB’s, will also have a package of plays to run.

Expect to see more of RB Markese Stepp- The coaching staff has concerns with Stepp’s pass blocking, but have also acknowledged he is the team’s best back in-between the tackles and picking up yards after contact. SC has to be able to effectively run the ball to have a shot at knocking off the Huskies. The run game is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and didn’t have a carry go for more than five yards until the fourth quarter vs. Utah. Furthermore, the Huskies are 5-0 vs. Mike Leach’s Air Raid (Washington State) and will drop 8 into pass coverage, forcing the Trojans to run much the way BYU did with a similar defensive strategy.

With Hufanga out- Trojans need a great game from Gaoteote- LB Palaie Gaoteote has struggled at times reading offenses and focusing on his assignments. However, he has a ton of talent and is known for making big-time plays. Washington will use a lot of motion and mis-direction to distract SC defenders, specifically Gaoteote, who is one of team leaders in tackles. He will have to play his most disciplined game of the year if the Trojans are going to slow down the Washington offense.

Trojan defense by the #'s- The good and the bad- The Trojans rank 117th nationally with a -1.25 turnover margin; 101st in average offensive drive length given up; 89th in total defense, giving up 421 yards per game and are 111th in the country in giving up plays 10 yards or longer (64).

On the bright side, the Trojan defense has been fantastic where it matters most, which is in the red zone. They have allowed scores on just 75% of red zone opportunities, ranking 36th in the nation and touchdowns have only been scored 35% of the time.

Bryce Young to Jake Garcia- As we noted last week, all signs pointed to elite QB prospect Bryce Young de-committing from the Trojans and committing to Alabama. He fell in love with what Alabama is doing and the legitimate chance to start as a true freshman. However, Young has a deep respect for Coach Helton and USC and that relationship led to Young notifying SC of his intentions earlier then publicly noted which provided the Trojan staff enough time to secure a commitment from 2021 five-start prospect Jake Garcia. Being able to announce the commitment of Garcia a day after Young publicly announced his Alabama decision, helped SC mitigate the negative press.

Garcia Part II- Like JT Daniels, Jake Garcia is “an older” junior right now, and if he can pull it off, It would not be surprising if he tries re-classifying to the 2020 class. Garcia (6’2, 188 pounds) ranks #3 in the nation as pocket passer in the 2021 class. Though he is not the dual-threat athlete Young is, Garcia is well-liked by other top prospects and is expected to help Trojan recruiting efforts.

Overall recruiting note- Several recruiting analyst have stated the uncertainty surrounding Clay Helton’s tenure has caused a lot of prospects to hold off on committing to USC or dropping them from consideration. Thus, the Trojans current recruiting ranking is abysmal. “I have been doing this for two decades and have never seen anything like it” stated one West Coast recruiting analyst.

Extensive Game Preview- For an in-depth preview of the game, check out Tom Haire’s article via uscfootball.com

Betting Guide- Washington opened as a 9 point favorite and the spread has since jumped to 10.5. The over/under is set at 60.5. Washington has covered in six of its last seven games while the Trojans have covered in just six of its last 19 on the road. SC is 3-11 ATS and 2-12 outright as an underdog with Helton as coach. The Huskies have been one of the best home teams in the nation, winning 16 of its last 17 games in Washington. SC has had recent success in Seattle though, winning five of their last six games in Seattle. The under has hit in five of the past six games SC/Washington match-ups.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits-

*Matt Fink had one foot out the door in the transfer portal this summer and Michael Pittman almost went into last year’s NFL draft. What happens Saturday night if they both weren’t Trojans? Finks throws for 352 yards and 3 TD’s and Pittman catches 10 for 232 yards and 1 TD. Both made the right decision to stay put, especially Pittman, who is getting his just due as one of the nation’s best receivers.

*True Freshman Defensive End Drake Jackson leads the nation’s freshman in tackles-for-losses and ranks second in sacks. Against Utah, he was the star of the defensive line with 8 tackles and a massive sack for a safety.

*SC has never won three games against ranked teams in September. A win on Saturday will change that.

*Punter Ben Griffiths made his mark at the most important time of the young season. His coffin corner punt in the 4th quarter, pinned Utah at their own 6 yard line, setting up Drake Jackson’s sack for a safety.