ESPN “College GameDay” is in town, a sellout crowd is expected at Husky Stadium and many eyes in the college football world will be watching when the No. 4 Washington Huskies host the No. 20 USC Trojans on Saturday. Here are five things to watch.
1. Can the Huskies pressure USC quarterback Sam Darnold?
No player has been more essential during the Trojans’ five-game winning streak than redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who replaced Max Browne as the team’s starter after three games and has revitalized USC’s offense.
In six games as USC’s starter, Darnold has thrown 18 touchdown passes and three interceptions — he had two touchdowns and an interception in backup duty — and is completing 67.9 percent of his passes with an efficiency rating that ranks seventh in the country.
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And at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he is a tough runner who can be difficult to tackle.
“I think Sam Darnold is a special football player, I really do,” UW defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “I really believe this young quarterback is going to be a star in this conference. Just having him back there throwing the ball, he’s very accurate, he’s going to give his receivers a lot of chances to make a lot of plays.”
Since losing defensive end Joe Mathis to a foot injury, the Huskies have managed only three sacks in three games. But defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said he thinks the Huskies have been effective rushing the passer, citing their eight hits on Cal quarterback Davis Webb and seven hits on Utah quarterback Troy Williams.
“As long as we’re hitting him and he feels us, it’s all good,” Kwiaktowski said. “As long as he feels us, whether we’re getting the sacks or not, that’s what’s most important.”
USC, though, has allowed only nine sacks in nine games this season, a sacks-per-game ratio that ranks seventh nationally. UW needs more production from Mathis’ replacement, Connor O’Brien, as well as recently banged-up outside linebackers Psalm Wooching and Tevis Bartlett.
2. Another fun matchup for Sidney Jones.
UW’s star cornerback played most of this season without seeing many passes thrown his way, locking down his receiver so effectively that opposing quarterbacks mostly avoided him.
At California last weekend, though, Jones knew he would get a little more action. That’s because he covered the Pac-12’s leading receiver, Chad Hansen, to whom Cal throws often.
The result: two interceptions, two pass breakups and Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors, though Hansen did catch a 30-yard go-route against Jones and hauled in a touchdown pass that Lake said wasn’t Jones’ fault.
So it should be fun to watch the matchup this week between Jones and ultratalented receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who leads USC with 48 catches for 641 yards and eight touchdowns.
“He’s so big and strong,” Lake said of Smith-Schuster, who is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. “Really attacks the football, and they do a good scheme, design plays to get him the football. Uses his power and strength to really mow over DBs. We’re going to have to match his strength with our strength and attack the football the way he attacks the football.”
3. USC’s run defense will test the Huskies.
Against Pac-12 teams only, the Trojans allow 4.16 yards per rush. That figure ranks third in the conference, five spots ahead of the Huskies at 4.80.
So this could be a difficult matchup for UW running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, both of whom have been efficient and productive throughout this season.
Gaskin needs 48 yards to crack the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season, but he’s going against a USC defense that held Oregon’s Royce Freeman to 38 yards on 10 carries last week and has allowed only two 100-yard rushers this season (Alabama’s Damien Harris and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey).
USC’s top three tacklers are linebackers Cameron Smith and Michael Hutchings and defensive end Porter Gustin. That trio has combined for 18 tackles for loss and five sacks.
The Huskies rank sixth nationally in yards per rush at 5.92.
“They’ve got some players up front that create some challenges,” UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “They play a good scheme. They trust their back end, so they do like to load the box, and they’ve got some good players that can cover. So kind of all of that. Talent and the scheme makes them tough against the run.”
4. And the Huskies have to stop the run, too.
The Trojans are tied for 12th nationally in yards per rush, and they have a pair of running backs — Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis — who create the kind of one-two punch few other teams possess.
Davis has missed USC’s last three games with an ankle injury, though he returned to practice this week and Trojans coach Clay Helton said Wednesday that Davis looked good.
Jones and Davis have combined for 1,155 yards rushing and nine touchdowns this season, and sophomore Aca’Cedric Ware has chipped in 366 yards on 70 carries.
“There are four or five guys that I’ve seen in there that I’m like, ‘Now who is this guy?’ ” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “They have tremendous depth there. We’ve been relatively healthy there, so that’s been good for us, but this is probably the most depth I’ve seen on another team.”
5. New uniforms.
In honor of Veterans Day, the Huskies will wear new “Salute to Service” uniforms on Saturday, their first deviation this season from their traditional purple and gold.
Instead, the Huskies will wear black uniforms with black helmets featuring a U.S. flag-themed “W” decal, and each player will wear a patch on his jersey with the name of a different veteran affiliated with UW.
“It’s about our military,” Petersen said. “I think it’s the perfect time of what’s going on right now in our country, and that’s just our way to acknowledge and thank ’em.”
NO. 4 WASHINGTON (9-0, 6-0 PAC-12) VS. NO. 20 USC (6-3, 4-2)
4:30 p.m. Saturday, Husky Stadium
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM.
The series: USC leads, 51-29-4.
The pick: Washington, 35-24.
1 — John Ross, WR (5-11, 190, jr.): 14 receiving TDs are most in Pac-12.
3 — Jake Browning, QB (6-2, 209, so.): 34 TDs, 3 INTs in 9 games.
29 — Connor O’Brien, OLB (6-3, 232, jr.): Will be needed to pressure the QB.
50 — Vita Vea, DT (6-5, 332, so.): 29 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks.
9 — JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR (6-2, 220, jr.): Averages 13.4 yards per reception.
14 — Sam Darnold, QB (6-4, 225, R-fr.): 20 TDs, 4 INTs.
19 — Michael Hutchings, LB (6-1, 215, sr.): 48 tackles, 4.5 TFL.
35 — Cameron Smith, LB (6-2, 245, so.): 63 tackles, 6.0 TFL.
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