Defense faces first real test in Aggies

Don’t believe everything you read. At least, that’s how the saying goes.

Because if you read statistics about USC’s defense in 2013, you would believe that the Trojans had one of the top defensive units in all of college football.

So far this season, USC ranks eighth in the nation in points per game allowed at 10.0. The team is second in the NCAA in rushing yards allowed per game (43.7), fourth in total yards allowed per game (212.3), second in sacks (12.0) and sixth in interceptions, which is particularly encouraging given the amount of uncertainty surrounding the Trojans’ secondary entering this season.

But remember: don’t believe everything you read. Numbers might never lie, but they don’t always tell the whole truth.

Hawai’i, Washington State and Boston College, the three opponents USC has faced this season, all finished 2012 ranked 102nd or worse in scoring offense, and only the Cougars finished higher than 100th last season in total offense (96th). So, no, as impressive as USC’s defense has been, it hasn’t really seen a formidable opponent yet in 2013.

All of that will change Saturday when Utah State comes to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Last season, the Aggies, playing in the now-defunct Western Athletic Conference, which is a non-BCS automatic qualifying conference, ranked 21st in the country in total offense and 26th in scoring offense en route to an 11-2 record and a respectable No. 16 spot in the final rankings of the Associated Press poll.

This season, the results have been even more staggering, though they should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. Utah State is eighth in scoring offense and 12th in total offense, but those numbers are bolstered by wins against overmatched Air Force and FCS Weber State. Utah State’s lone loss this year came against the Pac-12’s Utah, but the team still racked up 487 yards of total offense.

But the reason Utah State poses such a threat to the stout USC defense is mostly because of one player: junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton. At 6-foot-2 and 200 lbs., he’s physically imposing and a dangerous open-field runner. He leads the Aggies in rushing yards this season and has more than 1,000 yards rushing for his career. He ranks ninth in the nation in passer rating this season, and finished 17th in that category in 2012.

USC fans most likely shudder at the thought of going up against a dual-threat quarterback, and rightfully so. The list of running gunslingers that have burned Trojan defenses in the past decade is an impressive one: Texas’ Vince Young in 2006, Washington’s Jake Locker in 2010, Arizona’s Matt Scott in 2012 and every Oregon quarterback from 2007 onward: Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and current Ducks signal-caller Marcus Mariota.

Making matters worse for USC is Keeton’s penchant for rising to the occasion against the big boys of the BCS. In his four career games against BCS automatic qualifying teams, Keeton has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 924 yards, thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions and rushed for 279 yards on 55 carries (5.1 yards per rush) and three touchdowns. Simply put, Keeton shows up ready to play against higher competition.

Utah State’s offensive proficiency can be directly attributed to Keeton’s arrival. In 2010, the year before Keeton’s freshman campaign, the Aggies averaged 22 points per game and amassed 4,168 yards of total offense. In 2011 and 2012, they averaged 33.6 and 34.9 points per game, respectively, and had nearly 6,000 yards of total offense each season.

The purpose of all these gaudy statistics is to show that USC’s defense will finally face a worthy adversary this Saturday. Coming into the season, questions surrounded the Trojans’ defense: How would Pendergast’s new scheme work? Would the secondary improve? Could the team still pressure the quarterback with only three down linemen?

Those questions have, for the most part, been answered. But now the main question that remain remains is simple — is this for real?

We’ll find out on Saturday. If the USC defense can stymie a gifted quarterback the likes of which it has consistently struggled with time in and time out in recent years, then I’ll go all in on this Trojan defense. If the defense can force some turnovers and keep Keeton and Co. out of the end zone, then you can call me a believer.

Until then, color me skeptical.


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