This is the game on the 2017 schedule that worries USC’s fans.
It’s the Trojans’ second straight week on the road. The game is scheduled for Friday night to accommodate ESPN, which means players have 24 fewer hours to shake off road fatigue and prepare for a distinctive offense they haven’t faced in three years.
And Washington State was supposed to be pretty good.
A month later, nobody’s talking “trap game” anymore. Too obvious. It’s simply a duel of undefeated, nationally ranked Pac-12 teams and, if anything, the short week seems likely to sharpen the Trojans’ focus.
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That was the indication USC coach Clay Helton was getting early this week. The No. 5 Trojans (4-0, 2-0) kick off against the No. 16 Cougars (4-0, 1-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at sold-out Martin Stadium.
“We have pretty smart kids,” Helton said earlier this week. “To go out on the road on a Friday night and have the opportunity to play another Pac-12 team that we feel is really, really talented – it makes for a great challenge. You don’t have to sell it too much to the kids. I could tell in practice today how focused and businesslike (they were). We know we’ve got our jaws set; we’ve got to grind through this week and try get a big win for our team.”
The Trojans also remember last year, when they faced a strikingly similar situation – first an early-season game in the California Bay Area (Stanford last year, Cal last week) and then another road test on a Friday night. It didn’t go well. They lost 31-27 at Utah.
Since then, the Trojans have won 13 straight games and essentially reclaimed their traditional place of national prominence, after years of inconsistency and underachievement. They’re a different team these days.
In Helton, who took the coaching reins late in the 2015 season, the Trojans seem to have found a coach with the right balance of intensity on the field and well-spoken affability elsewhere. In sophomore Sam Darnold, who made his first career start in that Utah game in 2016, they have discovered a quarterback whose uncanny talent has captured the national imagination.
Suddenly they’re USC again. They have an hellacious defense led by 250-pound linebacker Cameron Smith that in their last two games has racked up 10 takeaways and eight sacks. They have a big, athletic defensive line with a penchant for nipping passes in the bud.
They have a small community of typical Troy running backs, led by Ronald Jones (107 rushing yards a game) and a true-freshman revelation, Stephen Carr (6.3 yards a carry), who capably filled the breach last week when Jones was sidelined with a thigh injury. They have a young but impressive offensive line and a receiver whose 33 catches include five for touchdowns, Deontay Burnett.
The Trojans haven’t been flawless but they’ve weathered their challenges, outlasting Texas in a double-overtime odyssey and navigating a tense game at Cal last week to win 30-20.
And there’s history on USC’s side.
It’s been 25 years since Washington State beat a top-five team in the regular season, not since a snowy November day in 1992 when Drew Bledsoe led the Cougars past rival Washington.
In between, there’s been the high of two Rose Bowl berths for the Cougars and plenty of lows. Perhaps none more embarrassing than a 69-0 loss to USC at home nine years ago, a margin that could have been much worse.
So yes, this is a big game for Washington State, no matter how much coach Mike Leach tries to downplay it. Aside from Apple Cup’s against Washington, it’s likely the biggest home game for the Cougars since late in the 2002 season – their last season that finished in the Rose Bowl.
“When you grow up, you live to play in games like this,” Washington State running back Jamal Morrow said.
Aside from the Cougars themselves, perhaps the biggest challenge for USC is the multi-stage trip to the isolated Palouse. It’s a journey the Trojans haven’t taken since the last time these programs met, in 2014. But that USC-Cal contest last week had a 12:30 p.m. kickoff, meaning the Trojans were back in Los Angeles at a reasonable hour.
“Obviously it’s a really short week,” Helton said. “It’s been some nights on the couch here at the office, and putting in the extra time for the coaches. But it’s all part of the game. It’s just something you deal with, because we are in a television-driven business.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.