USC Trojans Sam Darnold completes a four yard pass to receiver Deontay Burnett in the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the 2017 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on January 2, 2017. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo
No. 16 Washington State started the season with four victories, all at home, but those games were merely appetizers leading up to the main course: a Pac-12 showdown against No. 5 USC on Friday night.
It's a rare spotlight game in Pullman, Wash. Martin Stadium, with a capacity of about 33,000, was sold out last week and should be rocking.
The Cougars are 4-0 for the first time since 2001. The Trojans have won 13 consecutive games, the nation's second-longest streak.
Each team opened conference play with a victory.
"It's an exciting game," said Washington State offensive lineman Cole Madison. "Every week is an exciting game but this one really sticks out. It should be a good one."
USC coach Clay Helton -- whose team is playing back-to-back road games on a short week of practice -- said he is most concerned about Washington State having a "start-fast team," especially after the Trojans have either trailed or been tied in the fourth quarter in three of their four games.
That was the story last week at Cal when USC rallied for 17 points in the final period to win 30-20. The Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) have outscored opponents 72-38 after three quarters.
"You're very, very happy again when you see a team finishing in the fourth quarter," Helton said. "That's kind of been our hallmark."
Washington State (4-0, 1-0) is outscoring opponents 87-19 in the first half this season.
In contrast to USC's ability to come on strong late, Washington State trailed off in last week's 45-7 rout of Nevada. The Cougars scored only 10 points after building a 35-0 halftime lead.
"I guess you guys feel some of the starts have been faster than I do," Leach said at his Monday press conference when asked about the reasons for the quick starts.
"The short answer is that all sides of the ball played well together. ... We've emphasized it. But it's something that easier said than done."
Washington State senior quarterback Luke Falk completed 36 of 47 pass attempts for 478 yards and five touchdowns against Nevada. His fourth touchdown pass in the second quarter marked the 100th of his career, moving him past former USC quarterback Matt Leinart for third on the Pac-12's career list.
Through four games, Falk has guided Washington State to No. 12 in the nation in scoring, averaging almost 44 points per game in Leach's "Air Raid" attack.
Falk, who has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 344.1 yards a game with 14 touchdowns and only one interception, will face a USC defense that forced six turnovers against Cal. The Trojans have 11 takeaways -- the third-most in the nation.
USC cornerback Jack Jones, part of an athletic secondary, earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors after picking off two passes at Cal.
"I have a competitive nature to where I don't ever want to lose," Jones said. "If someone catches a ball on me, I'm losing, and I don't want that feeling."
USC redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, considered to be a potential No. 1 NFL draft pick in 2018, has come up clutch late in games, but he's also been intercepted seven times this year -- just two fewer than he made in 10 starts last season.
"He's a good player," Leach said. "I think he's mature, just really mentally together for a guy who is his age."
Darnold will face a Washington State defense that ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in passing defense, allowing only 142.2 yards per game. He is averaging 306.2 passing yards a game, completing 98 of 146 passes (67.1 percent) with nine touchdown passes.
Darnold might have to operate without his top rusher, junior Ronald Jones II (322 yards rushing on 59 carries with five touchdowns), who could miss his second consecutive game with a thigh contusion and sprained ankle. He was considered questionable early in the week.
The Trojans might have to lead again with freshman Stephen Carr, who rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown against the Golden Bears. He was the first USC true freshman to start at tailback since Dillon Baxter in 2010.
USC also played last week without receiver Steven Mitchell (groin) and defensive end Porter Gustin (biceps). Gustin is out indefinitely.
The Trojans' 13-game winning streak is their longest since winning 34 consecutive games under Pete Carroll from 2003-05. They started the week as four-point favorites over Washington State.
"What an incredible atmosphere that is going to be on a short week on a Friday night in the Palouse," said Helton. "It's going to be a lot of fun. We've got a big challenge on our hands."