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September 19, 2013

Game Preview: USC vs. Utah State

Game 4: 'Hey, Look Me Over, Tell Me Do U Like What U See?'

Chuckie Keeton has become a big star for Utah State. Can the Trojans' rising defense find an answer for him?

The USC Trojans (2-1) close out a three-game homestand by facing the Mountain West Conference's (MWC) Utah State Aggies (2-1) this Saturday, September 21, at 12:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a split national ABC/ESPN2 television audience. It's just the fifth meeting between the two schools, with USC winning the four previous meetings, all in Los Angeles - the most recent a 66-10 thrashing way back in 1989. The Trojans are 26-1-1 against current members of the MWC, while Utah State is just 40-121-5 against Pac-12 opposition, with the bulk of those games coming against in-state rival Utah.

A week ago, the Trojans bounced back from a shocking loss to Washington State by throttling Boston College 35-7 at the Coliseum. The USC defense played spectacularly once again, holding BC to just 184 total yards and allowing the Eagles' only touchdown in the fourth quarter against reserves. The Trojan offense came to life under the direction of newly cemented starting QB Cody Kessler, who completed 15-of-17 passes for 237 yards and 2 TDs. Meanwhile, the Aggies jumped all over FCS opponent Weber State, 70-6, in their home opener. Junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton threw five first-half TD passes as the Aggies won their second straight after a season-opening loss at Utah.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (34-20 career collegiate head coaching record; 27-14 at USC) is in his fourth season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. In Logan, new Utah State headman Matt Wells, an Aggie QB from 1993-96, seems to have picked up where his predecessor, Gary Andersen (now the head coach at Wisconsin), left off. The Aggies, with Keeton under center, have a high-flying, quick-hitting offense to go along with an attacking veteran defense. After an 11-2 season in 2012, the Aggies made the jump from the WAC to the MWC - and already look ready to challenge for a title.

Utah State Offense
Wells served as the Aggies' QB coach in 2011 and offensive coordinator last season. Utah State finished 18th in the nation in total offense and 26th in scoring offense a season ago and showed great balance. Wells named Kevin McGiven (a former Utah State assistant who spent 2012 calling the shots for Montana State's offense) offensive coordinator and brought in his younger brother, Luke Wells, as co-offensive coordinator after three years at Iowa State. The best news for the new staffers operating the Aggies' version of the read-option offense is that Keeton is back (among eight returning starters) and looks better than ever. After completing nearly 68 percent of his passes a season ago (for 3,373 yards and 27 TDs, with just nine interceptions) and rushing for 619 yards and eight more scores, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has looked even stronger through three games. He's completed 78 percent of his passes for 923 yards with 12 TDs and one pick - and he leads Utah State in rushing, averaging 6.7 yards on 28 carries. Not to mention, his 10 TD passes in Utah State's past two games all came in five quarters of play (he sat out the fourth quarter at Air Force two weeks ago and the second half vs. Weber State last week). All of this has helped the Aggies average more than 550 yards and 49 points in their first three games.

Keeton's early play is even more impressive considering the fact that Utah State lost its leading rusher and top four receivers from 2012. The top target so far has been undersized slot receiver Bruce Natson. The 5-foot-7 sophomore has 19 grabs through three games, including nine in the season-opening loss to Utah. Senior Travis Van Leeuwen is a much more sizeable target, at 6-foot-3, and is averaging more than 17 yards on 13 catches. Senior Travis Reynolds is Utah State's other starter and has two scores among his eight catches. And the Aggies' tight end combination of senior D.J. Tialavea and junior Keegan Andersen have been solid, especially in the red zone - four of their 12 combined grabs have gone for touchdowns.

The job of replacing Kerwynn Williams (1,512 rushing, 697 receiving, 20 total TDs), Utah State's all-everything running back in 2012, has not fallen upon one player. The Aggies have put together a solid combo thus far, featuring the speed and quickness of junior Joe Hill and the power of senior Joey De Martino. Hill is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and is also a solid pass catcher, notching 11 grabs out of the backfield. De Martino, who gained 105 yards in just eight carries a week ago against Weber State (with three TDs), is more of the power back who sees most of his time in short yardage or on the goal line. Senior Robert Marshall is another bruiser who could see time.

A lot of the credit for Utah State seemingly not missing a beat thus far in 2013 also has to go to a veteran offensive line that had combined for 125 total starts through 2012. The group is also a big reason why the Aggies rank fourth nationally in third-down conversions (30-of-46). They are led by a player who might be one of the top five centers in the country, senior two-time All-WAC center Tyler Larsen. He's joined by fellow 2012 All-WAC first-teamer Eric Schultz, a senior right tackle, and 2012 All-WAC second-teamer and senior left guard Jamie Markosian. Twin brothers Kyle Whimpey (senior RG) Kevin Whimpey (junior LT) are returning starters as well.

Utah State Defense
When Andersen convinced Dave Aranda to run his defense at Wisconsin, new Utah State defensive coordinator Todd Orlando joined Wells' new staff after stints at Connecticut and Florida International. He arrived to find seven returning starters, including some especially solid talent in the front seven. The Aggies operate out of the aggressive 3-4 set they did during the Andersen Era, even though Orlando is more experienced with 4-3 defenses. There were some growing pains against Utah, as the Aggies' in-state rivals threw for 302 yards. It will be interesting to see how the Aggies perform Saturday after a pair of games against inferior competition.

Up front, senior defensive end Connor Williams, an All-WAC honorable mention player a season ago, has been hampered by a foot injury of late but is back atop the depth chart. Classmate Paul Piukala has been solid as his replacement, leading the Aggie D-line with 10 tackles. At the other end, junior B.J. Larsen (eight tackles, one for loss) and sophomore Jordan Nielsen, a freshman standout in 2012, are splitting duties. In the middle, senior A.J. Pataiali'i is the key man.

The strength of the Aggie defense rests at linebacker, however. This group is counted upon to make plays and features a pair of 2012 All-WAC first teamers in sophomore outsider Kyler Fackrell and senior insider Jake Doughty. Doughty leads Utah State with 30 stops so far (after notching 109 in 2012), while Fackrell has 2.5 tackles for loss among his 13 tackles. They are joined by junior insider Zach Vigil, another honors candidate, who has 23 tackles, and senior outsider Terrell Thompson who is often substituted for in nickel packages.

The Utah State secondary will be tested often this year, though it did return two starters from 2012 and added an eight-game starter from 2011 who missed last season. That player - senior free safety Maurice Alexander - has been impressive so far, with a team-leading 1.5 sacks among his 17 tackles. He's joined at strong safety by junior Brian Suite, who is coming of a 73-stop campaign in 2012 and has 17 tackles so far this season. At corner, senior Nevin Lawson is a returning starter, who's joined by classmate Tay Glover-Wright. Senior Quinton Byrd (11 tackles) has been solid in nickel duty.

Utah State Special Teams
Junior Nick Diaz took over the PAT and field goal opportunities from senior Josh Thompson during 2012. Thompson still handles kickoffs, but Diaz has hit 13-of-16 field goals since taking over. He's got plenty of leg with a career long of 53 yards. The punter is junior Jason Bentrude (41.1 yards per boot, with six fair catches in nine opportunities). Natson handles punt returns (11.2 yards per), while Glover-Wright (22.3 yards per) has been the main kick returner. Look out for speedy freshman Kennedy Williams here though - he had a 44-yard return against Weber State last week.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Imagine that: you name a starting quarterback; you put together a decent game plan around him that takes some pressure off of your offensive line; you get more stellar work from your tailbacks - and you put up 35 points and 521 total yards. That's not to say that the Trojans' offensive effort in last weekend's win over Boston College was anything revolutionary. In fact, by any measure other than what happened the week before against Washington State, it would probably be considered pretty vanilla: run the football effectively, use play-action passes, get more receivers involved and throw the ball downfield more often, including a couple of well-timed deep shots. Still, Kessler was impressive from the get-go, not only operating Kiffin's gameplan, but also controlling the huddle and communicating with his offensive teammates. Fantastic performances from tailbacks Tre Madden and Justin Davis also made his life a little easier.

Still, there remain more questions than answers surrounding this USC offense. The apparent high ankle sprain suffered by freshman wideout Darreus Rogers will likely leave the Trojans with just four available scholarship receivers this week (and perhaps longer). Will that depth become an issue? How can Kiffin continue to get his excellent tight ends more involved? Is anyone going to step up - be it junior Aundrey Walker or senior John Martinez - to deliver a decent performance at right guard? Is USC's penalty problem back after going dormant in the first two games? Will Silas Redd suit up this season?

Some of these questions need immediate answers if the Trojans are going to put up the kind of points it will take to beat Utah State Saturday. USC cannot afford another wideout injury - especially considering the Aggies look weakest against the pass so far (Utah State has only three sacks - all vs. Utah - and no interceptions in 2013), this appears to be the week that Kiffin needs to flip his run-first script. The Trojans must continue last weekend's effort to get everyone involved in the passing game (eight Trojans caught passes), while mixing in healthy doses of Madden and Davis. Expect the Aggies to put a big focus on pressuring Kessler. Will the offensive line hold up (without holding on for penalties) against Utah State's linebacker and secondary blitzing? If they do, it could be a big day for Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense continued to put up impressive numbers against Boston College. Even with just a single sack against BC quarterback Chase Rettig (who was under siege most of the day but did a good job of getting the ball away under pressure), USC still ranks third nationally with 12 sacks. After allowing 184 total yards to the Eagles, the Trojans' total defense number dropped to 212 yards per game, ranking fourth nationally - and the 43.7 rushing yards allowed per game ranks second in America. Clancy Pendergast's attacking, aggressive style has put more players into position to make plays in three games than Monte Kiffin's style did in three years.

However - and it's a big however - the Utah State offense, thanks mainly to the skillset of Keeton, is a pretty major upgrade over any the Trojans have seen thus far. In their pass-first version of the read-option, the Aggies play quickly and rely heavily on the decision-making skills of their talented signal caller. And why not? Keeton has been nothing but stellar, making his teammates better over and over again. And his confidence is boosted even more playing behind an excellent and experienced offensive line.

So what will the Trojans do? USC will rely heavily on their front seven to handle Utah State's running game and get after Keeton - there will be no eight in the box this week. But his elusiveness in the backfield and speed in the open field make pressuring him with the front-seven a real risk-reward proposition. Don't be surprised to see someone like a Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard or Su'a Cravens be assigned to spy on Keeton. This, in turn, will put a lot of heat on the USC secondary to continue its impressive improvement in coverage so far this season - but, honestly, Utah State's receivers are only as good as Keeton makes them.

The Pick
There's been so much discussion of a Utah State "upset" this week that, really, it wouldn't be much of an upset, would it? The Aggies have spent the last four seasons inching closer and closer to a big win over a BCS conference opponent - losing by eight at Texas A&M in 2009, by seven at Oklahoma in 2010, by four at Auburn in 2011, and by two at Wisconsin in 2012. Many believe Keeton's magic moment is about to arrive.

There are two big questions for USC this week: can Kiffin call and the Trojan offense execute the kind of gameplan it will take to put points up against a still-vulnerable Utah State defense? And just how improved is Pendergast's Trojan defense?

With the lingering vibes from the Washington State game two weeks ago, I can't honestly answer the first question. I will tell you that USC has far more offensive firepower and talent, if used properly, than the Utah team that dominated the Aggie defense three weeks ago. The answer to the second question, though, is most likely to decide this game. Let's be honest: while much of the talk this week has been about how the Trojans haven't seen a player like Keeton or an offense like Utah State's this season, it's also true that the Aggies haven't seen the kind of defense that USC will field Saturday. The winner of this matchup will win the game.

USC 31, Utah State 24

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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