LOS ANGELES — When Southern California last faced Washington State in 2014, safety Chris Hawkins remembers preparing for an offense ready, willing and able to throw the ball on nearly every play.The No. 16 Cougars are still capable of airing it out, but the fifth-ranked Trojans expect to face a slightly more balanced version of the Air Raid approach on Friday night.
"The last time we went up there we were getting ready to have 80 snaps of passing," Hawkins said. "Now it's more of get their backs the ball, whether it be handing it off or throwing it to them out of the backfield. They really like to get their running backs involved."
James Williams leads the team with 37 catches, and Williams and Jamal Morrow each have three touchdown receptions out of the backfield. Williams, Morrow and Gerard Wicks have combined to average 19 carries per game, usually when quarterback Luke Falk recognizes there are not enough defenders around the line of scrimmage and changes the play to a run.
Nearly everything coach Mike Leach does is about forcing the opposing defense to tackle in open space, and Hawkins believes the USC secondary is ready for the challenge.
"We've been better at tackling throughout the year," Hawkins said. "We started off pretty iffy tackling, but now we're toward the fifth game and we're tackling pretty well as a whole defense. Tackling is the key this week."
USC also can help itself by continuing its roll when it comes to turnovers. The Trojans had 10 takeaways in its previous two games. Sophomore cornerback Jack Jones has three interceptions, including two in last weekend's 30-20 victory at California. Hawkins and Ykili Ross each had one interception as the Golden Bears turned it over six times.
Hawkins got his fourth career interception in the fourth quarter after the coaching staff wanted him to call it a day. Instead, Hawkins told cornerback Iman Marshall to stay in the game because their chance to get an interception was coming. Sure enough, Hawkins came away with the fourth and final pick off Ross Bowers two possessions later.
"As soon as I caught it, I went straight out of bounds," Hawkins said with a smile. "I wasn't trying to sugarcoat anything. I was running straight to the sideline. We got out of there with the W. I got what I wanted out of that drive, and we're all good."
For Jones, his recent knack for making plays is a reflection of adjusting to life as a starter.
"The first couple games I had to get the speed of it, and now I feel like each week I get better and better," Jones said.
USC also is growing more comfortable with a variety of different personnel packages for its secondary, employing a big dime for the first time this season against Cal. There were four safeties among the six defensive backs on the field, with Matt Lopes joining Ross, Hawkins and Marvell Tell in a formation that could come in handy against Washington State.
"Marvell was able to go down there and play linebacker. He was able to really get in the box, make some tackles for us, but it also put speed on the field," Hawkins said. "With 10 personnel, which is four receivers, we're at a disadvantage if you put a linebacker out there versus a quick, fast guy. It worked out for us."
Washington State has added wrinkles USC didn't see in their previous meeting, and vice versa, but Hawkins believes the game will come down to the Trojans' secondary against the Cougars' prolific passing offense.
"It's a big 7-on-7 game," Hawkins said.