LOS ANGELES -- USC was hoping to use the game against Utah State as a way to build some positive momentum, but the 17-14 victory over the Aggies showed that the Trojans still have a long way to go.
Make no mistake, it’s always nice to get the win but this is a game where the Trojans had a huge advantage in field position and also got the usual solid game from the defense. Unfortunately, the USC offense couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities to put the game away in the second half and, if not for some special teams miscues by Utah State, the result could have been very different.
“It was a very hard fought game today,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Very much like what we anticipated. I felt like there was a rhythm early on when we were able to run the ball, but obviously we wanted to finish better in the second half.”
USC started off strong with a Tre Madden touchdown run on the second series of the game to go up 7-0. The Trojans defense put good pressure early on Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton, primarily with defensive linemen Leonard Williams and George Uko as well as outside linebackers Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin. USC dodged a bullet when Utah State clanged a first-quarter field goal off the upright, a miss that would loom large.
Each team added a touchdown in the second quarter, and as the second half started it was clear it was anyone’s ball game.
The Trojans had their chances with the Aggies playing an eight-man front, leaving the USC receivers against man coverage. Normally, that would spell a big day for Marqise Lee and/or Nelson Agholor, but there were some dropped passes and some pressure on Cody Kessler which prevented the Trojans from capitalizing. Lee ended the day with six catches for 72 yards, while Agholor had two catches for 38 yards. Neither player reached the end zone.
“I missed some throws and we had some drops, but they are things we can fix,” Kessler said. “Thanks for the job our defense did, we were able to come away with the win.”
The USC defense is rapidly becoming known as the side of the ball which will win games for this team. Williams led the team in tackles with eight and added three tackles for loss. Uko had five tackles and a sack, Breslin had two sacks and Kennard added a sack. They did a terrific job of limiting Keeton -- who came into the game completing 78 percent of his passes -- to a rather pedestrian stat line of 21-of-39 passing for 179 yards and a pair of scores. Good numbers to be sure, but not enough to get it done against the Trojans.
“We had a good game plan from Coach O (Orgreon) the whole week,” Uko said. “We just wanted to angle in and rush tight and keep them in the box”
The battle for field position really started to impact the game in the second half, as the Trojans’ average starting field position was the Utah State 45, while Utah State started at its own 16. It didn’t help the Aggies that their punter had a shanked 12-yard kick at the end of the third quarter that led directly to a 25-yard Andre Heidari field goal, which proved to be the winning margin. There was also a strange fake punt from the Aggies on a fourth-and-11 from their own 34-yard line in the fourth quarter, resulting in an incomplete pass from tight end D.J. Tialavea.
If you’re looking for bright spots for the Trojans, look no further than punter Kris Albarado, who pinned five punts inside the Aggies’ 20-yard line to help win the field position battle. Little things like that are big on a day when the two teams are basically even in total yards (285 for USU to 282 for USC).
Madden fell short in his bid for a fourth-straight 100-yard rushing day but did run for 93 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown. Kessler completed 13 of 27 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown, but he was also sacked three times and took several big hits.
Now the Trojans turn their attention to a big road game next week in Tempe against Arizona State. There was hope that things would be clicking after a four-game opening stretch that included three games at home but at this point the offense can best be described as a work in progress. Thankfully the Trojans have their defense, a unit which once again put the team on their shoulders to come away with a tougher-than-expected win.