Coming off an upset win over then-No. 10 Utah, USC football heads to Seattle to face its second ranked opponent in as many weeks. Now ranked No. 21, the Trojans meet the No. 17 Washington Huskies on Saturday in a critical Pac-12 matchup with the chance to move to 4-1 entering the bye week. Eason has plenty of targets to work with, like senior wide receivers Aaron Fuller and Andre Baccellia — both of whom have over 200 receiving yards so far. The Huskies’ most dangerous weapon, however, is junior tight end Hunter Bryant. Bryant is one of the best tight ends in the country and leads the Huskies with 285 receiving yards this season. His route running and ability to come down with tough catches will be a challenge for USC to handle. On the ground, Washington fields a trio of athletic tailbacks in junior Salvon Ahmed, redshirt freshman Richard Newton and junior Sean McGrew. Although the status of Ahmed, the Huskies’ regular starter, is questionable, all three backs are explosive threats once they hit the open field. Though the Trojans did a good job containing Utah on the ground, this group could certainly do damage against a Trojan front seven that has been inconsistent against the run. However, redshirt freshman tailback Markese Stepp may be the X factor for the Trojan offense. He’s been productive in his limited snaps so far. If given more touches, he could do serious damage against a Washington front-seven that has yet to find its footing. Creating pressure might be even more imperative this week due to the mountain of injuries building up in the secondary. Starting cornerback sophomore Olaijah Griffin has been ruled out, as has sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga. Though redshirt freshman cornerback Issac Taylor-Stuart will play, the Trojans have been inconsistent in the defensive backfield, and the absences of Griffin and Hufanga could be huge factors in how well USC can slow Washington’s offense. Head coach Clay Helton announced Thursday that freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis will miss Saturday’s game. It will be up to redshirt junior Matt Fink to fill in for Slovis and carry the offense against the Huskies as he did against the Utes. Key to his success was his receivers’ ability to dominate Utah’s secondary. Redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns, sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown and especially senior Michael Pittman Jr. were spectacular. Against a better Washington secondary, Fink might struggle to replicate his performance. The Huskies’ offense has talent at every position, starting with junior quarterback Jacob Eason. In his first year as Washington’s starter, Eason has thrown for over 1,000 yards with a 73% completion rate, 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He fits throws into tight windows with regularity and displays tremendous decision-making. Freshman tailback Markese Stepp has only 15 carries this year but could play a big role in a strong rushing attack against Washington. (Ling Luo | Daily Trojan) Although the Trojans struggled mightily against Utah with only 13 rushing yards, they’ve shown in prior weeks that they’re capable of making plays on the ground. Redshirt junior tailback Vavae Malepeai has been consistent with the ball in his hands. Although junior tailback Stephen Carr has struggled running between the tackles, he’s still deadly on the edges. One of the keys to this game will be that front seven’s ability to create pressure on the quarterback. After barely showing up the first three games, USC’s pass rush wreaked havoc in the Utah backfield. If the Trojans can similarly pressure Eason, they might disrupt a young quarterback who has gotten used to clean pockets through his first four starts. Washington Offense vs USC Defense The Huskies enter the game fresh off a blowout victory over BYU — the same team that beat the Trojans in overtime two weeks ago. USC Offense vs Washington Defense The Huskies run an array of zone coverages, a sharp contrast from the man-to-man looks Fink saw from Utah. Don’t be surprised to see USC lean more on the ground attack this weekend against a Washington defense that gave up 192 rushing yards in a loss to Cal. Fink put up gaudy numbers against Utah, throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns, but questions remain about the first-time starter’s arm strength and accuracy. Prediction: USC 28, Washington 35 The Trojans are talented enough to stay in this game, but with Fink making only his first start against a talented UW secondary in what’s sure to be a rocking Husky Stadium, the Trojans might fall just short. The game might hinge upon how well USC manages to run the ball and the health of its secondary. If neither of those go the Trojans’ way, it’s hard to see them leaving Seattle with a win. USC must also win the turnover battle — the Trojans can’t afford to give the ball away. A slip in momentum could be all it takes for the Huskies to win.
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