DYLAN GREENE | Evergreen reporter
Two undefeated Pac-12 teams will take the field Friday night when No. 5 University of Southern California Trojans (4-0, 2-0) travel to Pullman to take on WSU (4-0, 1-0).
The Trojans are coming off a 30-20 victory over Cal (3-1, 0-1) on Saturday. USC Head Coach Clay Helton said traveling to the Palouse on a short week to play No. 16 WSU, makes preparing for the game more difficult.
“It’s a challenge,” Helton said. “I credit our coaches, there’s been some late nights and a lot of people sleeping on the couches right now just to prepare for this game.”
WSU Head Coach Mike Leach shared a similar feeling on the short week and said the most difficult part will be “getting it all in.”
The Trojans are riding a 13-game winning streak heading into the matchup with the Cougars. Helton said his team will need to be at its best to take down an undefeated WSU team.
“Coach Leach is always gonna put up yards and points,” Helton said, “but what I have been so impressed with is they are playing so well as a team right now, and that’s the reason they are 4-0 and ranked as high as they are.”
Helton pointed to one player in particular on the WSU defense that has caught his eye, redshirt junior defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa.
“You got Hercules, who’s a tackle-for-loss nightmare,” he said. “You better know where he’s at all the time.” Mata’afa is tied for fourth in the nation with eight tackles for a loss, and tied for seventh in the nation with 4.5 total sacks.
As a unit, WSU’s defense has allowed the fewest yards per game in the Pac-12 and forced 10 turnovers. The Cougs will look to continue their dominance against the USC offense, led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold.
If he decides to declare, Darnold is a projected first round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. He has thrown for 1,225 yards and nine touchdowns so far this season.
Despite Darnold’s ability, WSU redshirt senior linebacker Isaac Dotson said the defense isn’t altering any of its schemes.
“Nothing changes for us, we just play our defense,” Dotson said. “It’s tailored for any team, any quarterback and any player, so we don’t nitpick and tailor anything to a specific guy, we just do our thing.”
WSU’s offense will be looking to build on last week’s blowout against Nevada, in which they had 560 total yards.
Redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk threw for five touchdowns in the game and passed former USC quarterback Matt Leinart for third on the Pac-12’s all-time passing touchdown list.
However, the offense didn’t finish the Nevada game the way Leach would have liked. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Hilinski entered the game at the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter and the offense seemed to sputter.
Leach became frustrated when the team was unable to get a first down on a fourth-and-one opportunity. When the offensive players on the field got to the sideline, Leach made them do up-downs.
“If you can’t move the ball one foot on fourth-and-a-foot, yeah, offensive lineman and running backs will probably do up-downs again,” Leach said.
The offensive line has also struggled to protect the quarterback, giving up a total of 14 sacks through the first four games. But, Leach said the blame doesn’t fall only on the offensive lineman.
“I think as a team, the o-line, quarterbacks and backs all have a role in it. And some cases, the receivers do if there is no separation — if there is nobody open,” Leach said.
WSU is looking to finish its five-game home stand with a victory over the Trojans. A lot of hype and anticipation is surrounding the nationally televised game, and Leach said the team needs to block it out if they want to be 5-0.
“If we listen to any noise it will damage us, if we don’t it will help us,” Leach said. “I mean it’s about as simple as that.”
The game will air live on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. tonight from Martin Stadium.