Saturday, USC played like a team that either shut out the voluminous criticism surrounding the program and head coach Lane Kiffin throughout the week—or one that used the potential distraction as motivation. Kiffin's adjustments after an ugly loss to Washington State resulted in an emphatic, 35-7 rout of Boston College.
Like the Trojans' first two opponents, however, BC is a team coming off an especially poor 2012. The Eagles finished 2-10, and are rebuilding under first-year head coach Steve Addazio. Their record brings the combined 2012 mark of USC opponents this season to 9-28.
While BC and Washington State are improved from their 2012 incarnations, the Trojans' Week 4 tilt against Utah State should be the most insightful look at this USC team the nation's had yet.
The Aggie roster is veteran-laden, with 15 starters returned from an 11-win team a season ago. Chief among them is quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a dynamic playmaker whose dual-threat ability is comparable to other quarterbacks the Trojan defense faces in conference play.
Quarterbacks USC sees later this season with styles akin to Keeton's include UCLA's Brett Hundley and Utah's Travis Wilson. Arizona State and Stanford can use Taylor Kelly and Kevin Hogan in similar fashion, as well.
Keeton is completing more than 78 percent of his pass attempts through three games for 12 touchdowns and just one interception. In games against Utah and Air Force, he rushed for nearly 160 yards.
How USC engages Keeton demonstrates just well the defense grasps Clancy Pendergast’s 52 scheme—particularly standout linebacker Hayes Pullard.
After Utah State, it only gets more challenging from there. The Trojans travel to Arizona State and Notre Dame, with a Thursday night home affair against Arizona in between.
Three wins in that stretch puts USC at 5-2, and likely back in the Top 25. Assuming two of those victories come against their Pac-12 South counterparts, the Trojans return to the conference championship discussion.
A .500 record—or worse—leaves USC looking at 4-3 or below, with conference rivals UCLA and Stanford still to come.
Offensive adjustments since Week 2 will decide USC’s fate over these next four games. In Utah State, Arizona State and Notre Dame, the Trojans face three defenses that ranked in the top 40 of scoring defense a season ago—the Aggies and Fighting Irish were top seven.
Saturday's adjustments maximized quarterback Cody Kessler's abilities, and capitalized on the brilliant work of the defense.
The first three weeks were a feeling out period, a soft stretch of schedule uncharacteristic of the Trojan program. Though a deviation from typical early season slates, when USC has often faced a Top 25 opponent in the early weeks, the way this year's docket shook out benefits the Trojans overall.
Kessler emerging as the clear No. 1 quarterback to develop chemistry with his receiving corps and building a consistent run attack with Silas Redd out of the lineup would have proven exponentially more difficult with an Ohio State or Stanford in the first three weeks.
As it stands, Kiffin had an opportunity to begin crafting his offense’s identity against lesser competition. Parlaying the early growing pains is USC’s hope for a strong run in the Pac-12.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.