LOS ANGELES (AP) By the time Southern California coach Lane Kiffin was done talking this week, the Trojans and their fans were certain Utah State is a BCS title contender and quarterback Chuckie Keeton is a Heisman Trophy front-runner.
Kiffin isn’t blowing smoke at the Aggies (2-1) to get the attention of his Trojans (2-1), either. He really does hold Keeton and his high-scoring team in a regard bordering on fear heading into their meeting Saturday at the Coliseum.
“We’ve showed them how good these guys are,” said Kiffin, who compares Utah State’s offense to Oregon’s relentless attack. “We show them the scores of their other games. This is a Top 25 team in the country. … They’re really explosive, and they’ve got really good players around (Keeton). I’m not really looking forward to watching this guy run around all day long. I don’t think people around here really have a clue how good this team is.”
After following up a narrow season-opening loss to Utah with two blowout wins, Utah State and new coach Matt Wells have the chance to cement the long-struggling program’s recent renaissance with its first victory over traditional power USC in five tries.
The Aggies have won 18 of their last 22 games over the past two seasons, with those four losses by a combined 10 points.
The game matches strengths against strengths: USC’s defense has been imposing throughout its otherwise inconsistent start to the season, while Utah State’s offense appears to be another high-scoring machine under the direction of Keeton, who has already thrown an FBS-leading 12 touchdown passes.
Five reasons to watch the Aggies’ first visit to the Coliseum since 1989:
KEETON’S CHANCE: If Keeton wants a showcase for his remarkable talent, Utah State’s junior quarterback will get nothing bigger in the regular season than a national television audience from a historic stadium in the country’s second-biggest media market.
Many college football fans are already aware of Keeton’s athleticism and competitive fire, but putting up big numbers against an impressive USC defense would be even bigger for his burgeoning reputation.
He’s in prime form for a breakout after racking up 923 yards passing and a team-leading 187 yards on the ground already this season. Keeton has even thrown 10 TD passes in the past five quarters.
NO MORE SHARING: The Trojans’ offense improved markedly last week after Kiffin decided quarterback Cody Kessler no longer had to share playing time and practice reps with Max Wittek.
In last week’s 35-7 win over Boston College, Kessler went 15 for 17 for 237 yards and two TDs. Those aren’t Keeton numbers, but they’re encouraging to the Trojans.
“I feel a lot more settled now,” Kessler said. “I feel like that first week, with all the controversy of the battle, has gone away, and now I’m just going back to work. I take it personally now. I don’t want us to have another game like we did before. I want us to keep moving forward.”
TRE GOES FOR FOUR: Tre Madden is the first USC tailback to start off a season with three straight 100-yard rushing games since Marcus Allen’s Heisman season in 1981.
It’s even more impressive considering those three games were his first at the position. Madden was a linebacker for the Trojans in 2011, and he missed all of last season with an injury.
With Silas Redd expected to miss another game with a knee injury, Madden is settling into the starting role. He expects to share more carries in future games with 17-year-old freshman Justin Davis, and he doesn’t mind.
LIGHT IT UP: Even with Utah State’s experienced offense and star quarterback coming to town, the Trojans’ offense isn’t worried about getting into a shootout. That’s probably because they’ve been watching USC’s dominant defense all season.
The Trojans have largely shut down their first three opponents, giving up just 10 defensive points in the first two games of this homestand. They’re ranked among the national leaders in rushing defense, sacks, total defense, interceptions, pass efficiency defense, tackles for loss and scoring defense.
“We know we have a great defense and they’re going to do their job,” Madden said. “Utah State, they have a great offense. We’re just focused on executing our game plan.”
UPSET SPECIAL?: Utah State has been agonizingly close to a signature victory over a high-profile opponent during its rise over the past half-decade, only to fall short each time.
The Aggies lost by eight points at Texas A&M in 2009, dropped a seven-point decision at Oklahoma in 2010, lost by four at Auburn in 2011 and fell two points short at Wisconsin last season.
There’s little doubt USC is vulnerable this season, given its inconsistent performances. Everything is in place for Keeton and his Aggies to get their breakthrough, big-name win – but it’s also a chance for the Trojans to get their season firmly back on track with a win over their toughest opponent to date.