LOS ANGELES -- A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s 17-14 victory over Utah State on Saturday:
1. Team defense: For the fourth consecutive game the USC defense was flat-out stellar, limiting the Utah State offense -- which came into the game averaging 550.3 yards per game -- to 285 yards. Leonard Williams and the Trojans’ defensive line spearheaded an effort that resulted in four sacks and limited USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton -- who entered Saturday’s contest completing 78.1 percent of his passes -- to 21-of-39 passing (53.8 percent) for 179 yards and two touchdowns.
2. Kris Albarado: With the USC offense struggling, and the defense more than holding its own, punter Kris Albarado found himself playing a key role in a battle for field position, and it’s safe to say that he came through for the Trojans. The junior from Lake Charles, La., pinned five of his seven punts inside the Aggies’ 20-yard line, and he was a primary reason why Utah State’s average starting field position in the second half was at its own 16-yard line.
3. Tre Madden: This wasn’t the best outing of 2013 for Madden -- in fact, it marked the first time all season that he failed to eclipse the 100-yard plateau on the ground -- but he performed solidly nonetheless in a game where the rest of the offense was non-existent for large stretches. Carrying the ball 24 times for 93 yards and one touchdown, while also making three catches for 15 more yards, he was especially effective early on before the Aggies switched to an eight-man front on defense.
1. Offensive energy and crispness: After appearing to have made strides in the team’s win over Boston College last week, a very stale-looking USC offense took a pronounced step back against Utah State, especially in terms of the passing game. Quarterback Cody Kessler completed just 13 of 27 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown, and he received little help from those around him, including his receivers who dropped two key throws. In the second half Utah State provided every opportunity for the Trojans to run away with the game, giving the offense tremendous field position time after time, but USC could only muster one field goal as a result.
2. Offensive line: One significant contributing factor in the stagnant play of the offense was another less-than-stellar performance by the USC offensive line, particularly when it came to pass-protection -- something it has grappled with throughout the team’s first four games. Allowing three sacks on the day, the unit struggled more and more as the game wore on, and Kessler had a steady flow of pass-rushers coming at him late in the contest that made it difficult for him to get a rhythm going.
3. USC third-down conversions: With the offense failing to move the ball on a consistent basis, the Trojans continued to have a tough time on third down. Coming into the game against Utah State having successfully converted on just 29.7 percent of the team’s third-down plays -- the No. 104 mark nationally -- the Trojans were just 3-of-14 (21.4 percent) on Saturday, and 0-for-8 in the second half.