On one hand, the Utah State Aggies, a mid-major squad from the mid-level Mountain West Conference, should feel very good about themselves for being able to hang tough with the mighty and traditional collegiate (and not just in football, either) power USC Trojans.
On the other hand, allow me to be blunt:
Those Aggies had a real chance to pull off an upset, and failed to capitalize on the opportunity as in a sense, they gave USC the game.
This was the case when Utah State kicker Nick Diaz missed a 37-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter that would loom huge later on.
And this was especially the case when Aggies punter Jaron Bentrude shanked a punt in the fourth quarter, the ball going only 12 yards, which directly led to the winning points courtesy of Andre Heidari’s 25 yard kick.
When quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who passed for 179 yards and two touchdowns, was stopped on 4th and nine with three and a half minutes left, that was enough – barely – for the Trojans to escape with a 17-14 win before a once again less-than-outstanding crowd of 63, 482 at the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.
Not that the Trojans cared about how ugly the win was.
“Nobody remembers (the score),” coach Lane Kiffin commented afterward. “…everybody just says, ‘Oh well, they found a way to win the game.’ So, we did that today.”
Marqise Lee, who though he caught six passes for 72 yards had another less-than-spectacular day as he dropped a pass and was misconnecting on a few others was more direct, saying, “We won. That’s all that matters.”
The Trojan gods should be profusely thanked for ‘SC’s defense, which held Utah State’s high-flying offense to 285 total yards and had ten tackles for losses in the game, including four sacks.
If not for Morgan Breslin, George Uko, Dion Bailey and company, who knows where the Trojans would be as that unit is ranked in the top ten in five defensive categories – tenth in interceptions (six), fourth in total defense and sacks (16), third in rushing defense (59.2 per game), second in tackles for loss (38), and tops the nation in red zone defense, giving up points 40% of the time.
As good as the ‘SC defense was on Saturday – and in 2013 to this point – Utah State’s defense was just as good on Saturday, matching the Trojans blow for blow as they gave up fewer yards, 282, than USC did.
Cody Kessler threw two touchdown passes in the second quarter, including a 30-yard strike to tight end Xavier Grimble, but was otherwise shaky as he completed less than half of his 27 pass attempts, was sacked three times and fumbled away a ball.
Tre Madden saw his streak of 100-yard rushing games come to an end as he ran for 93 yards, averaging only 3.9 yards a pop.
In short, the Trojan offense remains an issue, as it has become crystal clear that the defense has carried this team as they’ve now played 1/3 of their season.
USC’s efforts may be good enough to go 3-1 so far, but they now face the meat of their schedule as what they’ve accomplished will not be enough going forward, with teams like Notre Dame, and Pac-12 foes like Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon State, and crosstown rival UCLA waiting in the wings for them.
The Bottom Line Assessment: Despite their strong defense, these Trojans are vulnerable.
For the next two months, they will be facing teams that are perfectly capable of beating them; Washington State has shown everyone that.
And if they want to reach their goals, USC needs to improve their offensive performance – fast.
Arizona State Sun Devils (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12 Conference)
SITE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ
DATE & TIME: Saturday, September 28, 7:30 p.m.
These Sun Devils and their gold-shirted fans will be chomping at the bit to beat the stuffing out of the Trojans in Tempe, and they have the personnel to do so.
ASU is ranked eighth in the country in passing offense led by quarterback Taylor Kelly and wide receiver Jaelen Strong, while running back Marlon Grice ranked first in the NCAA in scoring at 16 points a contest.
As for the Sun Devils’ defense, they have the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year on that side of the ball in defensive tackle Will Sutton, who passed up a chance at the NFL this year to return to ASU. Linebacker Carl Bradford and cornerback Osahon Trabor join Sutton.
The Sun Devils did well in staging a late comeback last week before falling to fifth-ranked Stanford, 42-28, after being down 29-0.
Being that the game is at their place in front of some very rabid, Trojan-hating fans, I think that due to the ‘SC defense it will be a low-scoring affair, with the team making the fewest mistakes coming out ahead.
That could well be Arizona State, so the Trojans, particularly their offense, need a near-perfect execution of their game plan as they go for their first Pac-12 win.