Strong defense leads Trojans past Aggies 17-14

By The Associated Press
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(AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Unlike last season, it’s all about defense at Southern California this year.

Shredded for 62 points by Oregon, 39 by Arizona and 38 by UCLA in 2012, the Trojans have allowed only 44 points in their first four games this season under first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

By far their most impressive performance came Saturday when USC stifled explosive Utah State in winning a hard-hitting 17-14 decision. The Trojans (3-1) needed that kind of effort since their offense was held in check by the Aggies.

Andre Heidari’s 25-yard field goal with 13:35 remaining provided the Trojans with the winning points.

“The defense played lights out just as they have been doing for the last four games,” Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said. “Clancy had a great plan going in and we played physical defense. We used great schemes and we were able to control a great quarterback and rusher.”

Kiffin referred to Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton, who completed 21 of 39 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns while being sacked four times – twice by Morgan Breslin and once each by George Uko and Devon Kennard. Keeton threw for 923 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for a team-leading 187 yards in his team’s first three games this season. He wound up with a net of minus 10 yards on the ground against the Trojans.

“We strung them (the Trojans) out, we packed them in, we shifted out, we motioned, we gave them every look that we could give them to try get (Keeton) uncorked a little bit,” first-year Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “But they made plays.”

Utah State (2-2) averaged 49.3 points, 29 first downs and 550.3 yards and converted 30 of 46 third-down opportunities in its first three games. USC held the Aggies to just 285 yards, 13 first downs and 5 of 17 third-down conversions.

“We expected a hard-fought game that would go down to the fourth quarter, and that’s what it was,” Wells said “Our guys didn’t flinch. You look at the stat sheet and it’s almost down to the yard.”

The victory was USC’s second straight after a disappointing 10-7 loss to Pac-12 doormat Washington State. Utah State has lost just five of its last 23 games, with the five losses coming by a total of 13 points.

Cody Kessler completed 13 of 27 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown and Tre Madden gained 93 yards on 24 carries for the Trojans, who were held to just 282 total yards. Kessler’s 1-yard sneak on a fourth-and-inches play from the Utah State 25-yard line with two minutes remaining enabled USC to run out the clock.

“We’re not playing as efficient as we could,” Kessler said. “I missed some throws, there were some protection breakdowns and we had a few drops. But we’re 3-1 and that’s all that matters. We’ll go back and watch film and learn from this. We just missed on a few big plays and I wish we had them back.

“Their defensive line was relentless and they put a lot of pressure on me. It was old- time smash mouth football.”

Heidari, who missed a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter, kicked his game-winner six plays after Jaron Bentrude’s 12-yard punt gave the Trojans the ball at the Utah State 24-yard line.

Utah State tried a fake punt on fourth-and-11 from its 34 with 10{ minutes left, but D.J. Tialavea’s pass fell incomplete. USC couldn’t take advantage, but Kris Albarado’s punt was downed at the Aggies’ 2-yard line.

Utah State was unable to pick up a first down, and USC took possession at the Aggies’ 30 after Utah State was penalized for interfering with a fair catch attempt. The Aggies held again, but they couldn’t get anything going.

The Aggies reached their 41-yard line before Keeton tried to scramble but came up 3 yards short of converting a fourth-and-9 play with 3:33 left.

Madden’s 1-yard run capped a 45-yard drive on the USC’s second possession, giving the Trojans a 7-0 lead. Utah State’s Nick Diaz hit the right upright on a 37-yard field goal attempt later in the first quarter, but the Aggies tied it early in the second period on Keeton’s 8-yard TD pass to Brandon Swindall three plays after a 55-yard run by Joey DeMartino.

Kessler found tight end Xavier Grimble wide open over the middle for a 30-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, capping a 70-yard drive and giving the Trojans a 14-7 halftime lead. The Aggies outscored their previous three opponents 90-27 in the first half.

After Heidari’s missed field goal in the third quarter, the Aggies went into a no-huddle offense and it paid off as they quickly moved 72 yards to tie the game, scoring on a 10-yard pass from Keeton to Travis Reynolds.

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