Despite USC’s well-documented struggles on the offensive side of the ball early this season, the Trojans’ main concern this week could be on defense as they prepare to play Utah State (2-1) this Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
It is no secret that the Aggies have a lethal weapon in senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton. The Trojans’ defense is up for a challenge, hoping to contain the dual-threat quarterback who’s led an offense averaging 49.3 points and 550.3 yards/game.
It all starts with Keeton, a three-year starter at Utah State who began his collegiate career in 2011 with a near upset over the defending BCS champions, as the Aggies came close to knocking off Auburn on the road before falling valiantly 42-38.
Since then, Keeton has racked up 5,496 passing yards, 1,099 rushing yards and 64 total touchdowns.
This season, he’s thrown 12 touchdowns, tied for first in the nation, and just one interception while compiling a stunning QB rating of 187.7. He also leads the team in rushing, totaling 187 yards on 28 carries (6.7 yards per carry).
Keeton is such a prolific dual-threat quarterback that Kiffin compared him to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson earlier this week.
Keeton is protected by a veteran cast in his offensive line, which boasts five returning starters and has allowed only three sacks so far this year.
The Aggies play an uptempo, no-huddle offensive scheme that has caused major headaches for their opponents so far this season.
The offense ranks eighth in the nation in points per game and 12th in yards per game despite losing its top three receivers from last season.
“I would describe their offense as explosive,” said Kiffin. “This is a really good team with a great quarterback, great offense, defense and special teams.”
The USC defense, however, has a couple of lethal weapons of their own.
Despite recording just one sack and no turnovers last week against Boston College, the Trojans are still tied for second in the nation in sacks (12) and are tied for sixth in interceptions (6).
USC is also in the national Top 10 in rushing defense, total defense, pass efficiency defense, tackles for loss and scoring defense.
Redshirt senior defensive end and team captain Devon Kennard says this week is the hardest the team has practiced in the four seasons he has played for USC.
To prepare for Keeton, the Trojan defense has been playing against redshirt freshman quarterback Conner Sullivan during practice. Sullivan, who also plays baseball at USC and has some speed of his own, is the closest the Trojans can get to imitating Keeton.
“We know we can’t let [Keeton] out of the pocket a lot and run all over us,” said Kennard.
With such a dynamic quarterback commanding the opposition, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast says that his defense is focused on switching gears from utilizing a heavy run-oriented gap protection strategy to adjust to the Aggies’ more spread out offense.
“They do a lot of different things offensively. [They use] multiple personnel groups, multiple formations and multiple plays,” Pendergast said.
The Trojans’ defense will have to make adjustments to the 5-2 defensive scheme that Pendergast put in place.
“That’s the challenge of coaching college football and in the Pac-12 because you see a different offense every week,” Pendergast said.
By the response of the players and the long list of accolades USC’s defense has acquired over the first few weeks of the season (second in rushing defense, fourth in total defense), it is clear that Pendergast has lived up to the challenge thus far — but the Trojans are striving to get even better.
Redshirt junior cornerback Josh Shaw said the defense is aiming to be the top-ranked unit in the country.
“We come out and prepare as if [we are number one] every single day,” said Shaw. “We don’t want to be second to anyone.”
Redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey echoed his sentiments.
“If we’re all playing well and we’re the top defense in the country, we will all be looked at as the best players in our respective positions just like the Alabamas and LSUs,” Bailey said. “We just have to show up and do what Coach P. wants us to do.”
Saturday will be the true test. The last four times the Trojans played the Aggies, they have outscored them by a total of 213-29, but Utah State has won 18 of its last 22 games.