Give Clancy Pendergast the game ball, already: In an unnecessarily close game with the Utah State Aggies, the USC Trojans defense rose to the occasion to carry USC to the victory and, with it, a 3-1 record.
In its toughest matchup yet, USC squeaked out a 17-14 win over the Aggies. At first, the offense seemed capable and competent to put points on the board and give USC some cushion. As the game went on, however, that proved not to be the case.
Where the offense was once established and strong in the first half, it was a mere shadow of itself in the second.
Running back Tre Madden had another great performance, rushing for 93 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries. Cody Kessler continues to grow and emerge as competent; he stepped up in the pocket to hit his targets all over the field, targeting four different receivers for 164 yards on the day. He took some licks, but he rebounded and looked pretty good for most of the day. However, the Trojans failed to execute on many golden opportunities in this game, with no excuse whatsoever.
It started as little things.
Wide receiver Marqise Lee and tight end Randall Telfer both dropped huge passes that were delivered flawlessly to them. As the game went on, the mistakes got bigger: kicker Andre Heider shanked a 42-yard field goal, another ding against him as he continues to spiral this season. Kessler overthrew Madden on an easy screen in the fourth quarter that would have resulted in a first-down conversion in Aggies territory, which subsequently forced the Trojans to punt.
And let's not even talk about the muffed punt by Utah State that gave the Trojans prime field position within the 30-yard line, but saw USC only muster up a field goal.
USC had the ball in Aggies territory three straight times in the fourth quarter and only produced three points. With the talent USC has on offense, this lack of execution is simply unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the Trojans defense is looking more and more BCS-worthy with every passing opponent. Chuckie Keeton came into this game a mid-major star, and he left it looking like any other average quarterback. Pendergast's defense absolutely stifled the Aggies offense, suffocating them with the constant pressure that has become a staple of this defense. It limited Keeton's passing to 179 yards and two touchdowns, with nearly half of those yards coming on a 55-yard run and a 42-yard pass. Even including those two big plays, the Aggies only averaged 4.5 yards per passing play; coming into it, they averaged 6.8.
Not only that, but the Trojans defensive line also made it impossible for Keeton to use his legs. Keeton had minus-15 rushing yards on the day, which bodes well for USC's ability to finally be competitive against dual-threat quarterbacks. Big-time sacks by Devon Kennard, George Uko and Morgan Breslin proved that the Trojans defensive line is an elite bunch and will be formidable for future Pac-12 opponents.
Even the secondary played well, save for the aforementioned big plays. True freshman Su'a Cravens continues to grow into a future All-American in Troy; early in the game, he brilliantly read Utah State's play and delivered a big hit to halt the drive deep in its own territory.
The 5-2 defense is coming along just fine for USC, while the offense continues to pull Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-esque performances.
Were it not for the defensive effort, USC would have lost this game.
A number of factors contributed to USC's offensive struggles. First, there's the issue of health and depth. After the win, head coach Lane Kiffin told the media, via Mike Piellucci of 247 Sports, in the press conference, "I can't imagine anyone in the world playing with numbers like these."
Then, there was just the simple fact that players did not always play to their full potential when they needed to. When the quarterback hits a target right in the numbers and he just drops the ball, there's no excuse for that. That's not coaching—that's just bad execution.
Lastly, play-calling was a bit of a question mark at the end of the game. USC seemed to abandon the run and opt for going over the top, though the run was what got USC—and kept it—in the game in the first place.
The win was not pretty by any means, but it was the first true test the Trojans had this season, and they passed.
Pendergast and his defense did so with flying colors, while the offense did just enough to avoid having to sit in the corner with a dunce cap on its head.
Kiffin astutely said after the game, via Evan Budrovich on Twitter, "Today we passed that test, but are we are going to have keep doing it," alluding to the even tougher competition of Arizona State looming next week.
If the USC offense can match the ferocity and tenacity of the defense, the Trojans will be in great shape this season. If it continues to sputter along, USC is going to have to keep relying on the defense to keep it afloat, and eventually, the ship just might begin to sink.