No. 6 USC welcomes test from Washington State

No. 6 Southern California looks to match its best start since 2006 when it welcomes Pac-12 counterpart Washington State to Los Angeles on Saturday.

The Trojans (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) remained perfect in the Lincoln Riley era – at least, in terms of record – with a 42-25 defeat of sputtering Arizona State last week.

USC did have a minor first-time blemish last week under Riley: Quarterback Caleb Williams threw an interception for the first Trojans turnover of 2022.

It hardly impacted USC’s FBS-best plus-14 turnover margin through five games, and the outlook for the Trojans continuing to dominate in that department is favorable for Week 6.

Washington State (4-1, 1-1) is minus-4 in turnover margin for the season. The Cougars finished on the negative side of the turnover battle in each of their first two Pac-12 games, losing two turnovers while gaining one in a 44-41 loss to Oregon on Sept. 24; and giving away a pair without a takeaway last week vs. Cal.

The lack of turnovers generated against Cal did not seem to hurt the Washington State defense. The Cougars held the Golden Bears to just 31 net rushing yards on 24 carries, a byproduct of Washington State’s four sacks in the 28-9 win.

Quarterback Cameron Ward, whose 289 passing yards per game edge USC’s Williams and his 280.4 yards a contest for third-most in the Pac-12, surpassed 300 yards in each of Washington State’s last two outings.

Ward operates out of a variation of the air-raid offense akin to USC’s, overseen by coordinator Eric Morris. Morris played at wide receiver at Texas Tech coinciding with Riley’s tenure as a Red Raiders assistant coach – including Riley’s stint as wide-receivers coach from 2007-09.

Morris became a Texas Tech assistant and eventually offensive coordinator, in that time developing his own nuances to the scheme. Riley praised Morris’ approach, particularly in maximizing Ward’s potential.

“(Morris has) done a good job of marrying it to what the quarterback does well,” Riley said. “He’s obviously been able to have some continuity with this guy, and you see that Eric’s a smart enough coach (that) he’s got an understanding of what his guy can do well.”

That “continuity” mirrors USC’s own situation with Riley and Williams. Shortly after Riley accepted the Trojans’ coaching vacancy and left Oklahoma, Williams followed.

Likewise, Morris worked as head coach of FCS Incarnate Word, leading the Cardinals to their first-ever playoff appearance last season. Ward won the Jerry Rice Award as the top FCS freshman in the spring 2021 campaign and was a contender for the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy – the Walter Payton Award – last season.

Ward’s 718 combined passing yards over the past two weeks suggest the quarterback is finding his groove, but cutting back on interceptions with seven in five games is a must – particularly against USC.

The Trojans’ 12 interceptions lead the nation, and nine different players have picks. Mekhi Blackmon, Max Williams and Calen Bullock set the pace with two each.

Cougars wide receiver Renard Bell said extending gains and “just not taking what the route gives” would be critical to the Washington State offense, echoing the sentiment of Cougars head coach Jake Dickert.

“We also need explosive plays off 7-yard throws, and guys making people miss, and explosive plays off of the screen game. It isn’t just throwing deep,” Dickert said. “We’re going to need some guys to make some plays down the field to win this football game.”

Washington State seeks its first win over USC since 2017, when the Cougars ended the Trojans’ best start in seven years with a 30-27 decision at Pullman, Wash.

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