In a game of wasted offensive chances caused by poor special teams play on both sides, USC turned in a superb game on defense and did just enough on offense to claim its third victory of the season in a sloppy 17-14 win over visiting Utah State.
A slew of penalties and missed opportunities prevented the Trojans (3-1) from turning the game into a rout in the fourth quarter, and the Aggies (2-2) hung around through the final minutes until USC’s defense punctured Utah State’s upset hopes by stopping quarterback Chuckie Keeton on a fourth-down scramble.
“We wanted to keep [Keeton] in front of us and not let him get to the sidelines,” freshman safety Su’a Cravens said. “When I saw [Keeton] go down, I was thinking, ‘That’s exactly how we planned it.’”
USC opened up the scoring on its second drive of the game with a 1-yard run from redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden. Later in the second quarter, after a 55-yard scamper from Utah State tailback Joey DeMartino brought the ball to the USC 8-yard line, Keeton completed a slant route to a leaping Brandon Swindall to knot the score at seven apiece.
The teams then traded three-and-outs before USC used its grinding, two-back system to temporarily open up the passing game for redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler. Seven consecutive runs — four from Madden, three from freshman tailback Justin Davis — preceded a third-down conversion from junior wide receiver Marqise Lee and a 30-yard touchdown pass to redshirt junior tight end Xavier Grimble, who sailed undetected past Utah State’s safeties on a picturesque seam route down the middle to give USC a 14-7 advantage.
After halftime, the Aggies showcased the explosiveness that USC head coach Lane Kiffin had been wary of in practice all week. A nine play, 72-yard drive took just 3:23 off the clock and deadlocked the score at 14 midway through the third quarter, the first time USC had given up any points in the third quarter this year.
But after that, USC’s defense held Utah State in check through the end of the game, and junior kicker Andre Heidari provided the game-winning points for USC via a 25-yard field goal with 13:35 remaining.
NOT SO SPECIAL TEAMS
Outside of redshirt sophomore punter Kris Albarado, who pinned the Aggies inside their 20-yard line five times, the play of USC’s special teams was certainly not a strength. Heidari missed a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter, and the return teams failed to engineer any game-breaking plays.
But special teams were undoubtedly a larger issue for the Aggies. Utah State kicker Nick Diaz clanked a 37-yard field goal attempt off the right upright in the first quarter to keep the Aggies from cutting into USC’s 7-0 lead, marking the fourth consecutive game that the USC defense held its opponents scoreless in the opening quarter.
The Aggies also averaged just 34 yards per punt, including a botched 12-yard punt that gifted the Trojans great field position at Utah State’s 24-yard line as the clock turned into the fourth quarter.
USC seemed poised to put a touchdown on the board after a run by Madden and a reception by Grimble gave the Trojans a first-and-goal opportunity at the Aggies’ 8-yard line. But the Trojans only came away with Heidari’s field goal that edged the score to 17-14.
OFF DAY FOR OFFENSE
The USC rushing attack led by Madden and Davis, which averaged 196 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry before Saturday, could only muster 118 rushing yards and 3.0 yards per carry against the Aggies. Madden finished with 93 yards on 24 carries, snapping his streak of three games with 100-plus rushing yards.
Kessler was 13-of-26 for 164 yards and one touchdown, and also fumbled shortly before halftime to deny the Trojans a chance to build up a multiple-possession lead.
The Trojans were held out of the end zone in the second half after Utah State repeatedly put eight men in the box in an attempt to stifle USC’s running game.
The scheme change left Lee and sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor outside with man-to-man coverage, a seemingly favorable position for the Trojans, but they failed to capitalize.
“There was a number of explosive plays in the passing game against their corners that we weren’t able to hit which would’ve dramatically changed the outcome of the game,” Kiffin said.
Lee let several deep balls slip through his hands and Kessler was off-target on a couple of long attempts to keep the Trojans from blowing the game open.
“I missed some throws and we dropped some balls and had some protection issues,” Kessler said. “Obviously, there is some stuff we missed and wished we had back.”
A particularly frustrating sequence for the Trojans saw them start three consecutive drives within Utah State’s 35-yard line, golden opportunities for USC to put the game away, only to score three total points.
“Obviously we would’ve liked to finish better offensively in the second half,” Kiffin said. “I did feel there was a rhythm early in the first half, and for whatever reason in the second half we weren’t able to establish that. Our defense kept getting us great field position and unfortunately we weren’t able to blow the game out at that point.”
DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE
Keeton was largely kept in check despite occasionally flashing the dual-threat skills that had caused some minimal Heisman whispers. The senior finished 21-of-39 for 179 yards and two touchdowns, and was held to -15 rushing yards on 12 attempts.
“That’s just all the schemes with [defensive coordinator Clancy] Pendergast. He sets us up every week to play perfect,” redshirt junior defensive end George Uko said. “We had a good plan going the whole week with [defensive line coach Ed Orgeron] for inside tackles to push rush and outside people to align wide and just angle in and rush tight to keep [Keeton] in a tight box.”
Utah State had averaged 49.3 points, 550.3 yards and 29 first downs in its first three games, but the Trojans held them to just 14 points, 285 yards and 13 first downs. USC sacked Keeton four times and had 10 tackles for loss on the day.
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