Washington (2-2, 0-1 in Pac-12) at No. 17 USC (3-1, 1-1 in Pac-12)
6 p.m. Thursday, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Radio: 1000 AM/97.7 FM
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The line: USC by 17
Even if they say it’s just like any other game, you have to think there will be plenty of extra motivation for the Washington Huskies on Thursday. The number of players on UW’s roster who were recruited by Steve Sarkisian is dwindling -- counting walk-ons, I believe there are roughly 42 or so, out of 110 total -- but there are still plenty of seniors, juniors and third-year sophomores in starring or contributing roles for the Huskies, so I don’t think energy or effort will be lacking.
But in this game, against this USC Trojans team, I don’t know that any amount of effort will be enough.
The Trojans could very well be the most talented team in the Pac-12, with a quality, senior quarterback (Cody Kessler), a veteran offensive line, a bunch of offensive weapons (JuJu Smith-Schuster, two-way star Adoree Jackson, three capable tailbacks), and a defense loaded with 4-and-5-star athleticism. USC is young, and not invincible, even at home -- Stanford proved as much -- but I think it would take something close to a perfect performance for the Huskies to pull this one off.
Remember how bad the Huskies’ offense looked against California? How poorly they protected Jake Browning, and how frequently Browning struggled to hang in the pocket and find open receivers? And all those turnovers? The Trojans haven’t posted dominant defensive numbers -- they rank 51st nationally in defensive yards per play at 5.1 -- but they are far more talented on that side of the ball than Cal was, and it’s not hard to envision USC giving Browning and UW’s offensive line all kinds of fits. That’s why, again, it will be imperative for the Huskies to prove they can run the ball well enough to keep USC honest and give Browning some time to throw -- and stick to the running game if Dwayne Washington has another game like the 10-carry, 109-yard stat line he posted against Cal.
USC’s offense poses a unique challenge offensively, because they’ll mix some two-back, pro-style formations in with their up-tempo spread attack, something Washington’s defense hasn’t dealt with much this season (though UW obviously did see 92 plays against Cal). I’m interested to see how the Huskies hold up defensively in a fast-paced game. They currently rank 13th nationally in defensive yards per play (4.29), according to CFBStats.com, and 17th in scoring defense (15.8 points allowed per game) despite allowing 30 in their last game. Sidney Jones vs. Smith-Schuster should be a fun matchup, assuming Jones draws that assignment. And UW’s pass rush faces a stiff challenge against USC’s big, experienced offensive line.
Add it all up, and it’s hard to see the Huskies hanging with a team of USC’s caliber, especially on the road, and especially after the Cal game proved just how much room for growth this young team still has.
The pick: USC 38, Washington 17.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple