The Brutal schedule first year Husky head coach Steve Sarkisian was handed continues on Saturday as Washington (1-1) welcomes in the consensus No. 3 ranked USC Trojans (2-0) to Husky stadium.
Washington has lost (31-23) to LSU and won vs. Idaho (42-23) in their first two games of the season while the Trojans have beaten San Jose State (56-3) at home and Ohio State (18-15) on the road in their two games.
The headlines for this contest are never ending. Bottom of the Pac-10 versus the top, mentor versus pupil, defensive coordinator Nick Holt versus the offense juggernaut Sarkisian helped build.
You have starting freshman SC quarterback Matt Barkley out with injury, leaving Aaron Corp (6-3, 200, Jr) to make his first collegiate start on the road.
How hurt is Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight? Will USC have a letdown after another classic come from behind win over then-No. 8 Ohio State at a sold out Ohio-Stadium last weekend?
And of course, will Washington win their first Pac-10 game since 2007?
UW Rushing vs USC Rush Defense
Washington has made great strides since last season, especially on offense. You can thank coaching, schemes, and effort, but perhaps the most simple explanation has been an infusion of talent that was missing most of last season. With Jake Locker and Chris Polk back and healthy, the Huskies have two bona-fide playmakers who keep defenses honest.
Add emerging star Johri Fogerson and a staple of quality backs waiting in the wings and the Huskies finally have depth in the backfield. After the first two games Washington is No. 48 in the country with 106 rushing yards per game with Polk leading the way. Against a stingy LSU defense he racked up 90 yards on 21 carries (4.3 avg). The following week he carried the rock 19 times for 80 yards (4.2 avg) and one touchdown. Polk, a former USC commit has everything you look for in a star running back. He's blazing fast and can run by defenses, he's got good size and is physical enough to grind out yards, and is just as comfortable catching balls out of the backfield or even lining up at receiver.
The biggest question heading into the season was how good the offensive line could be. Those questions have been answered for the time being as they've opened up holes in the running game while only allowing one sack.
But USC should pose Washington with their stiffest test to date despite only returning three starters from a season ago. We all know the saying, USC doesn't rebuild they just reload. Chris Galippo, one of the top rated high school linebackers in 2007, scout team standout DT Jurrell Casey and true freshman DE Devon Kennard are proof of this. Combine them with players like S Taylor Mays, DE Everson Griffen, LB Michael Morgan, and CB Kevin Thomas who have experience and USC hasn't skipped a beat on defense.
Last week against a struggling Ohio State offense that currently ranks No. 92 in the country, the Trojans held the Buckeyes to only 10 first downs and 88 yards rushing. Speedy quarterback Terrelle Pryor was held in check (36 yards rushing), and USC appeared to be even faster on defense than last season.
But (this is hard for me to say) UW should pose a much better test on offense then the Buckeyes. At this point Locker is much more dangerous than Pryor and Ohio State only averaged four yards per carry against Navy in their season opener. LSU is one of the bigger and more athletic teams in the nation and Washington was able to grind out tough yards on the ground.
USC should be able to slow down Washington's run game but don't expect them to shut it down.
UW Passing vs USC Pass Defense
Nothing has been more impressive in Sarkisian's first season at Washington than the progress of Locker. Entering the season they set a high standard of 60% completion and so far he's hit the mark completing 42-of-70 passes.
Locker appeared surprisingly comfortable in the new system against LSU, taking the opening drive and marching 97 yards for a touchdown. He followed that up by leading Washington to touchdowns on their first five drives against Idaho. He's showing touch on the short passes and has connected on a couple beautiful passes downfield out of the play-action.
From day one Sarkisian has preached taking the pressure of Locker's shoulders and that is what his offense is capable of doing . Now, Locker is finding playmakers in space and allowing them to do work.
And Washington has some playmakers for Locker to work with. True freshman James Johnson has emerged a star. He doesn't look like a freshman, doesn't act like a freshman and certainly isn't playing like one. In fact, Johnson admitted that playing against LSU wasn't a big deal to him. He didn't complain about the speed of college football and actually said everything was slower than he imagined it would be.
D'Andre Goodwin is Washington's leading returning receiver and maybe their fastest. He continues to make plays this season and is nearly impossible to cover one-on-one. Devin Aguilar causes matchup problems with his speed and route running and Jermaine Kearse with his size and leaping ability, while Kavario Middleton is one of the best young tight ends in the Pac-10.
Something else that makes Washington dangerous is their ability to find running backs in the passing game. Both Fogerson and Polk have great hands and are comfortable running screens, catching the ball in the flats, or lining up at receiver.
You expect to see all three against a very fast USC front seven. They will need to keep the Trojan's off balance and the best way to do that is by finding the RB's in the passing game.
USC has a very solid secondary led by two-time All-American and future NFL first-round draft pick Mays. He leads the team in tackles and can cover so much ground in the passing game. Josh Pinkard is their emotional leader after missing the 2006 and 2007 seasons with knee injuries. He started 11 games last season at corner back but is also versatile enough to play safety. Kevin Thomas is the new starting cornerback but has plenty of game experience. He also has battled injuries but played in all 13 games last season, collecting 15 tackles, two sacks, three picks, and seven pass breakups. Galippo is a very savvy LB who is effective at reading quarterback keys and making his zone drops. In fact, he's the only Trojan to collect an interception in 2009.
However, for all of the good, USC has taken a step back with their pass rush. How could you not after losing four of your top five sackers from a defense that wasn't amazing at getting to the quarterback in 2008?
Washington's offensive line has only allowed one sack and has given Locker plenty of time to run the offense. Much of this is due to Sarkisian's play calling and Locker's speed, but you can't help but be impressed.
It shouldn't change much against a USC team lacking a major pass rushing threat. The big question will be if Washington can muster enough in the run game to force a Trojan safety into the box.
USC Rushing vs UW Rush Defense
Last season the Trojans broke in four new starters along the offensive line but this year they are reaping the rewards. They return their entire two deep rotation and may have the most talented group in the country.
Combine them with game changing talent Joe McKnight and the bruising Stafon Johnson and it's no wonder USC has run 83 rushing plays compared to only 54 passes.
It's no secret that USC wants to run the ball and usually does so effectively. With a freshman starting at quarterback the first two games of the season that has become even more true in 2009. Now, with Corp set to make his first start I don't expect things to change much. USC will get the ball to McKnight in space on sweeps and tosses and will effectively run Johnson up the middle in their zone schemes.
Luckily for Washington stopping the run is what they do best. Without a doubt the front seven of Washington is their strength led by the three linebackers. E.J. Savannah missed last season due to disciplinary issues and may be Washington's best player on defense. He would have been the Pac-10's third leading returning tackler had he played in 2008 and his presence has been immediately felt. He leads Washington with 19 tackles, good for No. 5 in the Pac-10 after two games. Donald Butler and Mason Foster round out the talented trio and they have a chance to be the best in the Pac-10 this season.
Up front Washington relies on big bodied Alameda Ta'amu (348 pounds) to plug the gaps. DT Cameron Elisara is having a break out season thus far and gives Washington toughness and experience in the middle. The Husky's best defensive lineman is Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and he will need to hold up strong against a very good USC line.
Injuries have hit the defensive line for Washington and DeShon Matthews will miss the game against USC. Senior Darrion Jones is physically the best looking player on the defensive line and coaches were hoping this season he would put it all together. Unfortunately he bruised his knee in week one and has been slowed since. His availability is still up in the air against the Trojans.
USC will gain their yards on the ground, that's inevitable. However, Washington has the players to limit the big plays and at least contain the ground attack, especially if McKnight isn't 100 percent. Hold USC to under 150 yards and Washington will be in the game come the fourth quarter.
USC Passing vs UW Pass Defense
I don't care how much confidence Pete Carroll has in his men, the quarterback situation is more concerning in 2009 than it has been in nearly a decade at Southern California. Barkley is a special talent, but the passing game took a hit in the first two contests with the true freshman at the helm.
With Barkley injured, Corp will be asked to start his first collegiate game on the road in the loudest Pac-10 stadium. Many believe Corp gives the Trojans a better chance to win and also believe he would have been the starter had an injury not slowed him during the fall. Even if that's the case, don't expect USC to open things up in the passing game...at least to begin.
They expect to run the ball against the Huskies and stop them with defense. It worked at Ohio State so why can't it work at Washington? It could, the odds makers say it will, but don't be shocked if it doesn't. Washington is stout against the run yet have struggled mightily against the pass to start the 2009 season.
USC has plenty of weapons in the passing game and they might need to find them if they expect to win. If Idaho can find holes in Washington's secondary, you better believe USC should be able to, no matter who is under center.
Washington's secondary is a work in progress, starting converted CB Justin Glenn at safety, a position he's never played, and true freshman Desmond Trufant at CB.
They have also struggled with rushing the passer and at one point versus Idaho had Adru Pulu and Talia Crichton, both true freshman, playing at defensive end together. Add true freshman DT Semisi Tokolahi, and LB Cort Dennison to list of players seeing their first significant action on defense and there is no wonder why they have struggle.
If Washington can't tighten the screws in pass coverage, you could see USC ditch the run first mentality and start chucking the ball around the field.
Washington has been solid on kick coverage this season ranking No. 29 in net punting while holding teams to an average of less than 14 yards per kick return. Junior College transfer Will Mahan has had an immediate impact averaging 45 yards per punt and has shown pin-point accuracy. PK Erik Folk was highly regarded coming out of high school but has battled inconsistency and injuries. However, he's three of four on field goals in 2009. Washington has been good in punt returns with Fogerson ranking No. 2 in the Pac-10, averaging over 18 yards per return. Their kick off returns have not been so successful. Jordan Polk and Quinton Richardson have only combined to average just over 18 yards per return, ranking then No. 87 in the country.
USC has struggled with punting ranking No. 93 in the nation as Billy O'Malley is only averaging 36 yards per kick. They are not much better in returns only averaging 9.3 yards per return. Place kicker Jordan Congdon is one of two on field goal attempts and perfect at PAT's this season. C.J. Gable is the Trojan's most explosive kick returner and has averaged over 24 yards per return. However, when the ball is not kicked his way USC has only averaged 16 yards on two returns.
QB -- UW -- BIG RB -- USC -- MODERATE WR -- USC -- MODERATE OL -- USC -- BIG
DL -- USC -- BIG LB -- UW -- SLIM DB -- USC -- BIG
SP -- EVEN
USC 31, UW 24 -- Washington will keep it close, but a lack of depth on defense will cost them in the end. Despite holding USC's ground game in check for three quarters, the horses in the backfield will make their mark late as USC holds on for another close road win.