Game of the Week: USC vs. No. 4 Washington
The Pac-12 has been one of the more interesting conferences in college football this season. With regular contenders such as Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA plummeting to the bottom, new teams such as Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Washington State have soared to the top. USC on the other hand, has been under the radar in recent years, but have consistently been one of the stronger teams in the conference.
Washington finally earned a top four spot in this week’s college football playoff rankings and although they been one of the most dominant teams in the country all year, it still seems that they are not quite as respected as they deserve to be. Chris Petersen is one of the best coaches in the game and has done a masterful job in his third season. The Huskies definitely have not had one of the more difficult schedules among the elite teams in the country, but there is no question that they have the ability to compete for a national title.
It appeared as though USC was in for a disheartening season after dropping three of their first four games, including two conference losses to Stanford and Utah. In the preseason, plenty of controversy aroused when USC decided to promote interim coach Clay Helton to full-time head coaching duties, rather than search for an outside replacement following Steve Sarkasian’s firing. Helton, however, has done an excellent job in his first full season as head coach. The Trojans have now won five in a row and were ranked No. 20 in this week’s college football playoff rankings.
Helton’s squad will have its most substantial test this week against an unscathed Washington team that stands at first place in the Pac-12 North Division. The Huskies resume includes an impressive 44-6 rout of Stanford and a 31-24 victory at Utah. In addition, last week’s game at Cal was viewed as a potential trap game, but the Huskies cruised to a dominant 66-27 victory.
Washington edged USC 17-12 in last year’s meeting. However, USC owns the all-time series lead by a wide margin, 50-29-4, and will look to extend it with an upset win this week in Seattle.
The biggest turning point this season for USC was when Helton benched Max Browne in favor of Sam Darnold. The redshirt freshman has been beyond terrific for the Trojans so far. Since Helton appointed him the starting quarterback, Darnold is seventh in the nation in passer rating and fourth in total QBR. He also has some great receivers at his disposal including one of the best in the nation in Juju Smith-Schuster.
Ronald Jones II has also been tremendous on the ground recently with 171 yards against Oregon last week. With Darnold, the USC offense ranks in the country's top 10 in yards per play and third down conversion rate. The USC defense is also much improved after a dismal start to the season.
On the other side, Washington signal-caller Jake Browning has been sensational, as he continued to show incredible efficiency against Cal last week. The sophomore completed 19-of-28 passes for 378 yards and six touchdowns. If not for Lamar Jackson, Browning would without question be the clear cut favorite to win the Heisman. Browning has two dangerous receivers in John Ross and Dante Pettis, who each caught three touchdowns last week. The Huskies also have a deadly one-two punch combination on the ground with Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman. Gaskin is currently the conference’s leading rusher while Coleman is third in the country in yards per carry.
Washington also owns a stout defense loaded with NFL talent. Budda Baker and Sidney Jones are both potential first round draft picks in the secondary, while linebackers Azeem Victor and Keshawn Bierra are two of the best linebackers in college football. One of the Huskies’ best pass rushers, Joe Mathis, is out for the season, but they have more than enough depth to make up for his absence. Elijiah Qualls and Vita Vea will take on a greater role up front now for arguably the top best defensive line in the Pac-12.
The most exciting matchup in this contest is going to be between the quarterbacks. Darnold and Browning might be the two hottest signal-callers in America, and this one has the potential to be a classic shootout. Both have been incredibly efficient throwing the ball and can make plays outside of the pocket with their legs as well.
Washington has dominated the conference thus far, but this matchup has a chance to be surprisingly close. Helton has USC playing inspired, and Darnold has turned them into a more than competitive team again. Joe Mathis looks like a devastating loss, but the Huskies defensive line is as deep as any and has more sacks without blitzing than any other team in college football. Both quarterbacks will play very well in a high scoring game, but the Washington defense will make enough plays down the stretch to lead the Huskies to a close victory.
Prediction: Washington 31, USC 30
Will Desautelle is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.