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Four-Down Territory: USC Ekes By Utah State

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Cody Kessler hands off to Tre Madden against Utah State on September 21. Madden saw his streak of three games with at least 100 rushing yards snapped by the Aggies. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.
Cody Kessler hands off to Tre Madden against Utah State on September 21. Madden saw his streak of three games with at least 100 rushing yards snapped by the Aggies. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

First Down

Southern California might have eked out a 17-14 win on Saturday against Utah State, but you can’t blame Trojans fans for believing Lane Kiffin’s squad is dealing with a bi-polar disorder.

One week after handily beating Boston College, 35-7, USC struggled to put away Utah State in Los Angeles. The Aggies (2-2) are deceivingly good — having taken Utah to the final minute before bowing down to the Utes in the season opener — but Utah State hardly posed much of a threat to the Trojans in years past.

Recent sanctions and depleted scholarships can’t be blamed for USC’s woes on offense. The Trojans have: Marqise Lee, who finished runner-up in the nation last season with 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns; the first running back in program history with three-straight 100-yard rushing performances to start a career; and the No. 4 defense in the country entering Saturday.

Still, USC is a very unconvincing 3-1, with a brutal home loss to perennial conference doormat Washington State. They easily beat Hawaii, lost to the Cougars, blew past Boston College and struggled with Utah State. That’s the definition of see-saw performance.

It only gets tougher for Kiffin and company moving forward. USC opens Pac-12 play next week with a road tilt in Tempe against Arizona State, then host run-happy Arizona before traveling to South Bend to face Notre Dame.

The lack of a true leader on offense — made all the more confusing by the bungled two-quarterback system in the first two games — could be the reason for the Trojans’ struggles. Cody Kessler finished with a measly 164 passing yards, fitting because USC entered Saturday’s game averaging 163 yards in the air. Even more telling, the team entered the weekend 104th in the nation in passing. Very un-USC-esque.

Second Down

Tre Madden’s rushing streak is no more. The Trojans running back failed to crack the 100-yard plateau for the first time this season. The sophomore became the first player in USC history to break the century mark in three consecutive games to open a season. Marcus Allen held the previous mark. Madden finished seven yards short of 100, but did find the end zone for the second time this season.

With Madden’s place in the Trojans history books locked in, the Aliso Viejo, Calif., native now can set his sights on a loftier record: Charles White’s 5,387 career rushing yards. That’s only 4,932 yards to go and roughly 32 games to do so. In other words, he has to average 154 yards per game for the rest of his collegiate career.

If he does it, look for a Madden 2015 cover.

Third Down

The biggest casualty of USC’s passing woes this season might be Marqise Lee’s NFL stock. Lee hauled in 72 yards against Utah State, not exactly the stats expected from a wide receiver who was thought to be a Heisman candidate entering the season. His pedestrian 72 yards on Saturday fit right in with his season average (73.2 ypg), numbers that don’t befit a player who is 44 yards shy of setting the Trojans’ all-time receiving yards mark as a junior.

Lee isn’t the only one suffering from the futility of USC’s quarterback situation. Nelson Agholor was supposed to compliment Lee in stretching the field for the Cardinal and Gold. Agholor caught a touchdown in the Trojans’ season-opening win over Hawaii, but has been shut out of the end zone ever since. In fact, the sophomore didn’t cross the cumulative 100-yard threshold for the entire season until Saturday’s game again Utah State.

Fourth Down

The Trojans defense is good. Beyond good. They’re borderline great. But a defense can only bend so far before snapping without help from the offense. Utah State became the first team to score on the Trojans in the red zone this season, punching in 8- and 10-yard touchdown passes from Chuckie Keeton to Brand Swindall and Travi Reynolds, respectively.

The Aggies were able to move the ball on the ground better than anyone else this season, but even that is an overstatement. Utah State rushed for 118 yards (Joey DeMartino: 72 yards rushing; Joe Hill: 51). The Trojans defense entered the game allowing a stingy 43.7 rushing yards on the ground, but did manage to hold two Aggies runners to negative yards.

It remains to be seen how long the Trojans’ defense can carry the load.  Of course, the defense might not break. The Southern California front seven accounted for 10 tackles for loss for a total of 31 yards. Of those TFLs, four of them were sacks and two belonged to Morgan Breslin. That likely puts the Trojans one sack behind national leader Maryland when the dust settles on Week 4.

Plus, only five teams in the country entered Saturday with more interceptions than the Trojans.

Keeping the defense healthy will be the key for USC. If the defense can keep the Trojans in contention, then perhaps it won’t be a make-or-break season for the Lane Kiffin era.