- Associated Press - Thursday, September 28, 2017

PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) - Shortly after the sun disappears behind the rolling hills of the Palouse on Friday night, Washington State will get the rare opportunity to prove its validity on a national stage.

The opponent is No. 5 Southern California in an early Pac-12 showdown. But for the 16th-ranked Cougars (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) it’s also history. It’s been 25 years since Washington State beat a top-five team in the regular season, not since a snowy November day in 1992 when Drew Bledsoe led the Cougars past rival Washington.

In between, there’s been the high of two Rose Bowl berths for the Cougars and plenty of lows. Perhaps none more embarrassing than a 69-0 loss to USC at home nine years ago, a margin that could have been much worse.

So yes, this is a big game for Washington State, no matter how much coach Mike Leach tries to downplay it. Aside from Apple Cup’s against Washington, it’s likely the biggest home game for the Cougars since late in the 2002 season - their last season that finished in the Rose Bowl.

“When you grow up, you live to play in games like this,” Washington State running back Jamal Morrow said.

If ever there was a time the Trojans (4-0, 2-0) appear vulnerable, this would seem to be it. They are battered with key injuries and uncertainty about the status of star running back Ronald Jones II, wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr and linebacker Porter Gustin. Fellow wide receiver Deontay Burton has a chance to play.

USC is traveling out of California for the first time this season and on a short week after playing at California last Saturday. Outside of a 21-3 scoring run midway through their 42-24 win over Stanford, the Trojans have looked less than dominant.

“We’ve found ways to be really good when it counts,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “I think about our fourth-quarter performances over the first four games and just how we’ve finished. They’ve always been a group of kids that when their back is up against the wall they perform, and we’ve been in some tight games over the first four games. Hopefully, that helps to our advantage as we get even further into Pac-12 play.”

Of course, the Trojans do have quarterback Sam Darnold that can help counter some of the potential absences on USC’s offense. Even Darnold hasn’t been his best yet this season, throwing seven interceptions in four games. He threw nine in the entire 2016 season.

Here’s what else to watch in Friday’s showdown:

FALK FLASHBACK: Washington State QB Luke Falk made his debut when the teams faced in 2014 in Pullman. Stepping in after starter Connor Halliday was injured in the first quarter, Falk threw for 346 yards and the first two of his now 103 career touchdown passes.

After being briefly benched and injured against Boise State, Falk has been effective in the last two games. Against Oregon State and Nevada, Falk is 73 of 96 (76 percent) for 874 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.

“He’s pretty accurate. I mean, he puts the ball where it needs to be and he throws the receivers open. His deep ball is tremendous, actually,” USC safety Chris Hawkins said.

USC’S STABLE: Jones is the Trojans’ top running back and proved so by rushing for 159 yards and 116 yards and five total touchdowns in the first two games. Jones missed last week with a thigh contusion, but said he hopes to play.

Even if Jones can’t go, the Trojans have depth in the backfield. Stephen Carr had 119 yards rushing in the win over Stanford and added 82 yards and a touchdown last week against California as the primary ball carrier. And there is always Darnold’s ability to use his legs lurking.

HERCULES, HERCULES: The most important player on the field for Washington State doesn’t play on offense. How well defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa and his teammates can disrupt USC’s offense may be the biggest key to a Washington State victory. Mata’afa has eight tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks in four games, both tops in the Pac-12. USC has allowed just seven sacks.

PALOUSE POSSE: It hasn’t come against the best competition, but the Cougars are the top defense in the Pac-12 thus far, allowing 262.2 yards per game. They’re also the top pass defense allowing 142.2 yards per game through the air. But the offenses they’ve faced are nothing like USC. Oregon State’s offense ranks 98th in the country; Boise State 99th and Nevada 111th.

USC’s offense? It’s 22nd nationally and averaging 492 yards per game.

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More AP college football: https://collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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