As USC prepares to play Utah State following a dominant win over Boston College, the attitude around the team has been in stark contrast to its mood after the Washington State loss. Positive energy is obviously a good thing during the days leading up to gameday, but as the Trojans have learned, preparation can never be taken for granted.
“I don’t think we have an overconfidence issue because we don’t have a lot to be confident about,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “I’m not worried about that. What I am worried about is the team we’re getting ready to play. Our players understand that this is a really good team.”
In Utah State, USC will face a team with a dynamic playmaker under center in quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who is generating some quiet Heisman buzz around Logan, Utah, but could significantly boost his case with a win against a high-profile team like USC in a nationally televised game.
“As well as [Keeton] played last year, he’s improved this year with his accuracy and his throwing on time,” Kiffin said. “He doesn’t get sacked very much. He’s a really unique player. To me, he looks a lot like Russell Wilson. He just finds a way to make plays when they’re not there.”
Now in his third season as the Aggies’ starting quarterback, Keeton has been outstanding ever since he arrived on campus. In his first collegiate game, he faced defending national champion Auburn on the road and nearly led Utah State to a shocking upset. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 213 yards, ran for two touchdowns and committed no turnovers in a thrilling 42-38 loss.
The USC defense is ranked No. 4 in the nation in total defense, but it has yet to face an offense as prolific as Utah State’s, which is No. 12 this year and was No. 21 a season ago.
“This is the best offense coming in here that we’ve played [this season],” Kiffin said. “They’re very dynamic. We’re gonna have to tackle extremely well, we’re gonna have to cover well, because they’re really good. There’s a reason they score 50 points a game.”
It will be imperative for the Trojans’ defense to contain the Aggies’ attack from the opening whistle. Last season, Keeton and the rest of the offense regularly started games already in rhythm, something the coaching staff is aware of and has stressed to the players.
“When you look at first quarter scoring statistics from last year, this is a team that really started fast,” Kiffin said. “They had some bad luck later in games, or they would have won those [close] games.”
On defense, the Aggies boast the No. 13-ranked unit in the nation in total defense, though it’s difficult to say they’ve faced the toughest of competition. Against FCS opponent Weber State, Utah State’s defense forced the Wildcats to punt on 12 of its 13 total offensive drives, with the other resulting in a fumble.
“[On defense], if you look at their stats, these guys have dominated people,” Kiffin said. “Even in the games where they have barely lost against bigger name teams, for the most part they outplayed them and have just had some bad breaks.”
One area that Kiffin and the Trojans must improve upon from last week is the penalty department. Against Boston College, USC committed 10 penalties for 100 yards, including multiple personal foul calls on late hits by the defense.
“You can do both: play really physical and play smart,” Kiffin said. “You’re gonna have some [hits] that are on the border when you play aggressive that sometimes get called and sometimes don’t. We’ve got to avoid the ones that are clear.”
Last season, USC was plagued by penalties, ranking No. 7 in the Pac-12 in penalty yards per game. Those types of miscues specifically hindered the team in losses. In a 39-36 loss to Arizona, the Trojans committed 13 penalties for 117 yards, consistently giving the Wildcats additional opportunities to score.
Offensively, USC will try to build upon its impressive performance against Boston College in which the team scored 35 points and had 521 yards of total offense. The most encouraging aspect of the win was the improved play of redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, who completed 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
USC and Utah State will kickoff at 12:30 p.m. The game will be broadcasted on ABC.