Utah State vs. USC: 10 Things We Learned in Trojans' Win
It wasn't exactly aesthetically pleasing, but the USC Trojans were able to eek out a 17-14 victory against the Utah State Aggies.
The defense for both teams was the overall story of the day. Neither offense could find any semblance of a rhythm. USC did a great job at limiting the success of talented signal-caller Chuckie Keeton.
Again, USC's offensive line did not have a great game. Both the pass protection and run blocking has to improve if the Trojans are to be a factor in the Pac-12 South Division race.
Here's 10 things we learned about the Trojans in this affair.
Clancy Pendergast Is an Upgrade over Monte Kiffin
Utah State came into this game averaging over 49 points per game. The Aggies were also averaging over 500 yards of offense.
Clancy Pendergast's defense held the Aggies to only 14 points and 285 yards of total offense on Saturday. Pendergast's 5-2 alignment frustrated the Aggies all day with pressure from different spots on the field.
Most impressive is the number that USC did on Keeton. The talented signal-caller was bottled up for the entirety of the contest. Coming into the game, Keeton was Utah State's leading rusher.
He rushed for -15 yards on 12 carries for the day. It was a masterful design by Pendergast, with only a few minor flubs by the defense.
It's quite apparent that Pendergast is better equipped to handle the spread when compared to former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
The OL Is a Big Concern
The offensive line was, yet again, underwhelming.
USC's running backs rushed for 118 yards on 39 carries. Those totals came out to a paltry 3.0 yards-per-carry average. It would be one thing if the Trojans accrued these stats against a conference foe, but this was against a team out of the Mountain West Conference.
The pass protection was also very poor throughout the day.
Particularly in the second half, Cody Kessler was battered and bruised. He didn't have ample time to go through his progressions and make the requisite throws.
If this trend continues, we may see Max Wittek due to a Kessler injury.
Nelson Agholor Has Been Underutilized
Where has Nelson Agholor been?
The extremely talented wideout from Tampa has electric ability. Agholor has the speed and quickness to become a bona fide threat in the Pac-12.
For some reason, he's not been utilized very much throughout the first four games of the season. Conventional wisdom suggests that Marqise Lee is likely to be double-covered on every single play.
In theory, that should offer Agholor many tantalizing opportunities. Against the Aggies, Agholor had only two catches for 38 yards. The Tampa native only has eight catches through four games.
It'd greatly behoove Kiffin to incorporate Agholor more into the game plan going forward.
USC's Front Seven Is Very Talented
The front seven was absolutely dominant against the Aggies.
Keeton had no time to set his feet and look downfield. A constant barrage of pressure by the defensive line afforded Keeton no running lanes up the field. His legs are such a vital aspect of his game.
Keeton is known for scrambling and buying time with his feet. The said characteristic was utterly neutralized by the Trojans. He rushed for -15 yards on the day.
Morgan Breslin, in particular, was an animal up front. The Aggies had no answer for his quickness off the edge. Additionally, Leonard Williams, Hayes Pullard, Devon Kennard and George Uko all flashed in the contest.
USC will have to rely on the front seven for the majority of the season. The secondary has been battling injuries and inconsistency and will likely do so for the long haul. With a strong pass rush, it'll help to mask the deficiencies that the secondary may have.
Get the Ball to Marqise Lee
Marqise Lee. Marqise Lee. Marqise Lee.
A talent of Lee's caliber doesn't come around too often. The prudent thing to do would be to get the ball in his hands at any moment. It's feasible to believe that he could score a touchdown on any said play.
Against the Aggies, Kiffin did look to utilize Lee's talents down the field vertically. Utah State was helpless in those instances. There were multiple times where Lee was prevented from catching the ball due to pass-interference penalties.
Lee led the team with six catches for 72 yards. Lee is, far and away, USC's best receiving option. The more he receives the ball, the better.
Kiffin Hasn't Fully Taken the Reins Off Cody Kessler
It doesn't appear as if Kiffin has a ton of trust in Cody Kessler at this point.
The play-calling has been vanilla and void of any creativity. Much of that is to compensate for Kessler's deficiencies as a player. However, there hasn't been much of an effort to exploit the field vertically. The mere threat of a deep pass attack will help the running game function more effectively.
Against Utah State, the majority of the pass attempts were less than 10 yards. Shorter plays were called in order for the wideouts to make a play in space, as opposed to the quarterback driving the ball downfield. The plays that were attempted downfield were not converted with great efficiency.
With playmakers such as Lee and Agholor, deep passes down the field should be attempted with more frequency.
The Support of Kiffin from the Fans Isn't There
The fans in Los Angeles are none too pleased with USC's fearless leader.
Reporter Lindsey Thiry tweeted about the boo birds that had came out during the end of the first half.
Here is a visual of what the Coliseum looked like before the game started. As Los Angeles Daily Times writer Scott Wolf mentioned, it appeared as if the fans thought it was a bye week in Los Angeles.
There was an announced crowd of over 63,000 fans in attendance. However, anyone with the ability to see could decipher that there were not 63,000 people at the Coliseum.
This tweet by Wolf says it all...
The TEs Are Sparingly Used
It's puzzling that Kiffin doesn't utilize the talented tight end duo of Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble more.
Grimble had two catches for 39 yards and a touchdown against Utah State. Telfer failed to register a grab on the day. Both are potential NFL players and can present mismatches on the field.
With Marqise Lee garnering a great deal of attention, the aforementioned duo are often left in single coverages. It makes sense logically to exploit these potential scenarios. The incorporation of both Telfer and Grimble should desperately help Kessler out in the passing game.
USC Isn't a Contender in the Pac-12 South...Yet
At this point in the season, USC isn't a favorite to win the South Division.
There are too many question marks that need to be shored up before the Trojans can challenge UCLA and Arizona State for the division crown.
Most of those questions persist on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback play needs to continue to become more consistent. In addition, the offensive line needs to pick up the overall level of its play.
Defensively, the front seven should be regarded as one of the best in the conference. The secondary is a unit that will surely be tested by the pass-happy teams in the conference.
If the Trojans can steadily improve in all facets mentioned above, there's no reason to think that USC can't contest for a Pac-12 South Division title.
Play to Win, Lane
As Herm Edwards famous ranted, you play to win the game.
Lane Kiffin has coached as if he's playing not to lose. USC's talent level is above the majority of the teams it will play. In theory, there shouldn't be a sense of conservatism or even apprehension.
Unimaginative play-calling has become a staple with Kiffin. In fairness to the head coach, USC's quarterback is inexperienced, and the offensive line isn't great by any stretch.
Still, there has to be more excitement with which Kiffin coaches. A stoic persona being perpetually exuded isn't doing him any favors.