Slumping USC faces Friday showdown with high-octane Cougars
By GREG BEACHAM
LOS ANGELES (AP) Slow starts and early-season upset losses are all-too-familiar occurrences for Southern California in recent years.
A September showdown with dangerous Washington State on a short week seems awfully familiar, too.
When the Cougars (3-0) visit the Coliseum on Friday night, the Trojans (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) realize they're playing for more than their first conference victory and a chance to avoid their first three-game losing streak in a single season since 2012. Just three games into their first year after winning the Pac-12, the Trojans already need a win to counter mounting criticism of coach Clay Helton and a struggling offense.
"We've been here before," running back Aca'Cedric Ware said. "We've just got to keep going. We can't let that start, this 1-2 start bother us. We've just got to keep getting better, keep going."
Ware is referring to 2016, when the Trojans started 1-3 before Sam Darnold took over and led them to the Rose Bowl. His thoughts also apply to last season's meeting with the Cougars, who welcomed the unbeaten Trojans to Pullman on a Friday night and then gritted out a 30-27 upset victory.
This time it's the Cougars who are unbeaten, albeit against a modest nonconference schedule of Wyoming, San Jose State and Eastern Washington. The Cougars' Pac-12 play opens with a quantum leap forward in competition, but coach Mike Leach's players already know they can play with the Trojans.
"I'm glad we are 3-0," Leach said. "I think we have to improve, and I think we have to improve a lot this week, quickly."
USC quarterback J.T. Daniels has spent much of the past two games playing catch-up after the Trojans fell behind at Stanford and Texas. The freshman is eager to play a game that will show the full range of his offense's abilities when the Trojans host their first Friday night home game since 1999, before he was born.
"We are very close," Daniels said. "There's a lot of things that when we watch film, we're really annoyed about and upset. If only that one guy did that one thing on that one play, you know."
The Trojans are impressed with Gardner Minshew, the graduate transfer quarterback who has seamlessly taken over for Pac-12 career passing leader Luke Falk. Minshew leads the nation with 401 yards passing per game while completing 70.9 percent of his throws. "Looks the same," USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. "For them to get a guy like that to come in and execute that offense in three games, he's very, very impressive. The ball is out quick. He sees the field well. He looks to his first, second, third progressions probably as good as any quarterback that Coach Leach has had that I've seen. He's very impressive."
USC linebacker Porter Gustin will miss the first half against the Cougars after receiving a targeting penalty against Texas. Gustin already had two sacks before his hit on Sam Ehlinger, whose helmet flew off. "I didn't even think it was going to be roughing the passer," said Gustin, who is off to a strong start to his senior season after struggling with injuries last year. "I think it's pretty clear I wasn't trying to do anything dirty, but his helmet popped off. They've really gotten strict on that rule, and we're going to have to adjust the way we go about things."
The Coliseum might be less crowded than usual for this one, and the Trojans' slow start is only one reason. The game is on a Friday night, forcing fans to navigate LA's brutal weekend rush-hour traffic to get downtown; the opponent is a school without an enormous alumni base in Southern California compared to other Pac-12 foes; and USC's 95-year-old stadium also is an active construction site while undergoing renovations, severely limiting its tailgating and parking areas. Many fans might decide to catch this one on TV.
Washington State is outscoring opponents in the fourth quarter by 52-0 in three games. "The biggest thing, I think, is our entire squad has played well in the fourth quarter," Leach said. "Offense, obviously, but defense and special teams, too. We've gotten a lot of plays in the fourth quarter, and we're trying to manufacture that for all the quarters, really."
Helton isn't worried about the Trojans' special teams misadventures in Austin, even after losing kicker Chase McGrath to a torn knee ligament incurred while trying to make a tackle on the Longhorns' blocked field goal return for a touchdown. Michael Brown is USC's new kicker. Helton also believes his two punters will bounce back after uncorking punts that went 13, 22 and 29 yards. "I've seen them punt well," Helton said. "They had an off night. Just poor kicks. They'll bounce back."
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Updated September 20, 2018