LOS ANGELES — No. 17 Southern California had largely managed to avoid coronavirus-related problems within its football program until last week, when an ill-timed outbreak cost the Trojans a game and a chance to make a national impression.
A week and a day later, USC (3-0) will get back to work Sunday (4:30 p.m., FS1) at the Coliseum against Washington State (1-1), which has ample experience in the delays and cancellations that are defining this college football season.
“We look at every day as a gift when you get to go on the grass,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “The kids are really excited to get back at it.”
The schools initially were slated to meet Friday night, but the game was pushed back two days to allow more Trojans to be cleared from coronavirus restrictions. USC had to cancel its game against fellow unbeaten Colorado last weekend because too many Trojans at one unidentified position were in quarantine.
That position is widely thought to be the Trojans’ offensive line, although the school hasn’t confirmed it and didn’t make players available to the media all week. Helton seems confident enough of his affected players will be ready to play in their first game in 15 days.
The layoff was even worse for Washington State, which hasn’t played since Nov. 14. The Cougars have missed two consecutive games with at least nine players in COVID-19 protocol, which means they either tested positive or were considered a close contact of somebody who did.
“You’ve just got to stay ready,” Cougars linebacker Dillon Sherman said. “We have a little bit of time to get our bodies back and prepare well, so I think we’re all excited. It’s been a couple weeks, so we’re excited to do what we came here for.”
After winning two tough road games in their previous outings, the Trojans return from their layoff as the highest-ranked team in the Pac-12, thanks to Oregon’s loss to Oregon State last weekend. While earning a spot in the College Football Playoff appears pretty much impossible, USC is still on track for a shot at the Pac-12 title game and whatever reward follows it in this topsy-turvy season.
USC had only two days of physical work over the nine-day gap between its last game and the resumption of practice this week. Washington State also got back into the swing of practice this week, and both teams believe they’ll be in competitive form when they meet at the Coliseum.
“Well, 2020 has been full of unforeseen circumstances, but I feel really good right now,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said.
Washington State could get a game-changing addition to its lineup if running back Max Borghi is able to make his season debut. The junior is coming off a season in which he rushed for 817 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching a team-high 86 passes for 597 yards and five more TDs. He missed the Cougars’ first two games of this season with an undisclosed injury, but he returned to practice this week in Pullman.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis came into his sophomore season as one of the nation’s top prospects at his position, but his play before the Trojans’ pause hadn’t quite lived up to that mark. Slovis has completed 70.7% of his passes for 970 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, yet he has missed more than his usual share of open receivers and thrown an alarming number of wobbly, weird balls downfield. After an extra week off, Slovis will return with an eagerness to show he still has his fastball.
Both teams will be raring to go when they finally hit the field. All four of the Trojans’ opponents this season didn’t have a game the week before facing USC. The game is also the first on a Sunday for the Trojans in 20 years, and just the fifth in school history.
Washington State has more than held its own against the big-city Trojans in recent years. The schools didn’t play in 2019, but they’ve split their last four meetings, including a 10-7 victory in the Coliseum in 2013 that contributed to USC coach Lane Kiffin’s firing three weeks later and ultimately set in motion the bizarre chain of events that led to Helton getting the full-time head coaching job in 2015.
USC held off Washington State 39-36 at the Coliseum in 2018 in the teams’ last meeting, and several players still at both schools played major roles. Borghi scored an early touchdown for the Cougars, and USC receivers Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown caught TD passes before Vavae Malepeai’s second rushing TD clinched the Trojans’ win. Malepeai has 130 yards rushing and two touchdowns in three games this season.
Associated Press writer Nicholas K. Geranios contributed to this report.