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USC offensive line gets stiffest test in Washington State

LOS ANGELES — Through USC’s 5-0 start, its USC offensive line has been a strength. Some games better than others. But overall, the front has not been a liability.

But on Saturday, USC’s line will face its greatest challenge against Washington State.

“Your mistakes are going to be TFLs against these guys,” Trojanns head coach Lincoln Riley said after practice Tuesday.

The pure numbers back Riley up. Washington State (4-1, 1-1 in Pac-12) is fourth nationally and first in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss per game, recording 45 in five contests. The Cougars average 3.6 sacks per contest. Linebacker Daiyan Henley alone has four sacks this season.

When Riley looks at the defense, he sees a lot of similarities with USC’s: Single-gap responsibilities, aggressive, active linebackers and safeties, movement up front and creative blitz packages.

But most importantly, the Cougars play hard and fast.

“You can see it on film and it sticks out,” USC center Brett Neilon said.

USC is coming off one of its rockiest performances of the season on the offensive line. The Trojans were missing right guard Justin Dedich against Arizona State, and never quite seemed on the same page.

While USC won the game, the Trojans posted their lowest rushing total of the season (137 yards) and quarterback Caleb Williams was under constant pressure, spinning and jump-passing his way out of sacks.

“I think we just need to clean up our technique. Sometimes it got sloppy,” Neilon said. “I think just the little things in pass pro and just communication. Setting with a purpose and things like that. But we’ll get it fixed.”

Williams’ elusiveness has certainly helped the USC offense avoid any major setbacks when the line slips. Tight end Malcolm Epps talked Tuesday about how often he has thought a play was dead only to see Williams still on his feet and realize he had to go find some open space for scramble drills.

But that can only hold up for so long against a front as aggressive and quick as Washington State’s.

USC would benefit from getting Dedich back this week. Riley and right tackle Jonah Monheim praised how Gino Quinones filled in at right guard, but Dedich has been a steadying presence for the Trojans.

Riley was noncommittal about Dedich’s status against Washington State. He said the guard’s unspecified injury is improving, but it won’t be until later in the week when USC knows if he can play Saturday.

USC appeared to have an answer to its left tackle question last weekend when transfer Bobby Haskins played every snap of the second half after a Courtland Ford holding penalty negated an 82-yard Mario Williams touchdown.

Riley said that decision was not a punishment for Ford, who missed the previous two games with an ankle injury, but rather an acknowledgement that Haskins had been slightly better in the first half.

“Courtland’s played a lot and is a good player,” Riley said. “He’s getting healthier and better and better as he gets back. So he’ll continue to be a big part of it.”

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