It's also a chance for one of the No. 25 Trojans' two quarterbacks - Cody Kessler or Max Wittek - to break out as the clear starter.
Yet neither possibility seems all that probable when the Cougars (0-1) visit the Coliseum on Saturday night for both schools' Pac-12 opener and the resumption of a rivalry that started in 1921.
Washington State looked better than many expected in a seven-point loss at Auburn last week, while USC (1-0) put on a muddled offensive performance in a comfortable win at Hawaii. But the Cougars are wary of the Trojans' talent-loaded roster and a revamped defense that looked dominant in its first game under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
Kessler and Wittek will continue their audition for the starting job, with coach Lane Kiffin declining to name a starter this week. Both quarterbacks think USC's offense can grow without one clear leader.
"We just have to go out against Washington State and execute the game plan, no matter which one of us is in there," Wittek said. "It's not just about the quarterback, it's about the whole team executing."
Here are five things to watch in the schools' 71st meeting:
NO QB QUALMS: While plenty of people are marveling over Kiffin's reluctance to choose one starting quarterback after months of auditions, Leach isn't among them. In fact, the veteran coach thinks Kessler and Wittek "appear to be kind of similar," which means the Cougars won't need to make many defensive adjustments depending on the signal-caller. Kessler made his first collegiate start at Hawaii, and he's expected to start against Washington State. Wittek, who started the Trojans' final two games last season, also is expected to play, but Kiffin hasn't committed to any timeline.
RUNNING AWAY: USC might not need to test its quarterbacks if Tre Madden and freshman Justin Davis run the ball as well as they did at Hawaii. The Trojans racked up 192 yards on the ground on 45 carries - the most by a USC team since Kiffin's first season in 2010. Madden had a 109-yard game in the former linebacker's first game at tailback, while the 17-year-old Davis had 74 yards in a promising debut. USC could get another boost if senior Silas Redd returns from a knee injury for his season debut, although it seems unlikely this week. Washington State gave up 297 yards on the ground to Auburn's no-huddle offense in its 31-24 loss, but remained encouraged about its improving defense.
HALLIDAY WEEKEND: There's no doubt about the identity of Washington State's starting quarterback, and Connor Halliday gets his first chance to face USC after a promising start to his season. Halliday threw 65 passes at Auburn, one shy of the school record, while racking up 344 yards in the air. The Cougars are likely to put up similarly stratospheric numbers against USC, which has several nagging injuries in its suspect defensive secondary behind a dominant front seven.
LONG TIME AGO: Washington State has beaten USC just eight times, but those rare victories have led to big things. Washington State hasn't knocked off the Trojans since 2002, when an overtime victory over Pete Carroll's Trojans propelled them to their last Rose Bowl appearance and forced USC's burgeoning dynasty to settle for the Orange Bowl. USC blasted the Cougars in their last meeting, 50-16 in 2010.
LEACH'S DEBUT: Mike Leach has never coached in the Coliseum, and the history buff is looking forward to his debut on the sideline of the storied stadium that has hosted two Olympics and the first Super Bowl. But Leach has been inside the Coliseum before, attending a Raiders game while he went to law school at Pepperdine in the 1980s. His strongest memory of that day is about an unfortunate guy wearing a Chargers T-shirt. "By the time the Raider fans were done, they'd ripped off the guy's T-shirt, passed it up and thrown it over the back of the Coliseum," he said. "At least for Raiders games, it was a pretty lively place, so we're looking forward to it."
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9/6/2013 3:16:14 PM (GMT -7:00)