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What to look for in USC's game against Utah State on Saturday

Eyes will be focused on Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler, receiver Marqise Lee and tailback Tre Madden, among others.

September 20, 2013|By Gary Klein
  • Cody Kessler says he's more settled in to the starting quarterback role after USC's 35-7 victory over Boston College in which he completed 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
Cody Kessler says he's more settled in to the starting quarterback… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

USC plays its third consecutive home game, this one against Utah State, which visits the Coliseum for the first time since 1989. Staff writer Gary Klein examines the story lines:

Pass or fail?

USC quarterback Cody Kessler, playing for the first time as the designated starter, completed 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 35-7 victory over Boston College.

The third-year sophomore played much more relaxed, kept several plays alive with his mobility and avoided turnovers. "I feel a lot more settled now," Kessler said this week.

The question: Will Coach Lane Kiffin allow Kessler to do more against a Utah State defense that has not intercepted a pass and has only three sacks?

Trojans receiver Marqise Lee scored on an 80-yard pass play last weekend, his first touchdown dating to last November against UCLA.

Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton is a three-year starter. The junior has passed for 12 touchdowns, with one interception, and also leads the Aggies with 187 yards rushing.

Bruce Natson has 19 receptions, Travis Van Leeuwen 13. Tight ends D.J. Tialavea and Keegan Andersen each have two touchdown catches.

Streaking

USC tailback Tre Madden has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of USC's three games, the first Trojans player to achieve the feat since Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen in 1981.

Madden is averaging 120.7 yards rushing per game and 5.5 yards per carry. Freshman Justin Davis has averaged 6.6 yards a carry.

The tailbacks are running behind an offensive line that drew rare praise from Kiffin after the Boston College victory.

Utah State running back Joey DeMartino rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns in eight carries last week against Weber State. Joe Hill has averaged 57 yards rushing per game.

Utah State's offensive line features five returning starters, making it one of the most experienced in college football. Senior center Tyler Larsen has 41 career starts, senior tackle Eric Schultz 35.

In defense

This should be the first real test for a USC defense that appears revitalized under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

Safeties Dion Bailey and Demetrius Wright have been the top tacklers for a unit that has 28 tackles for losses and six interceptions.

Tackle George Uko has three sacks, tackle Leonard Williams and linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard two each.

Senior linebacker Jake Doughty and junior linebacker Zach Vigil lead Utah State's defense, which ranks 13th nationally.

Penalty problem?

USC was penalized 10 times for 100 yards against Boston College, including two roughing-the-passer infractions.

Kiffin said one call was questionable, the other a poor decision by the player.

"When you play really aggressive, you're going to have some that are right there on the border and sometimes get called and sometimes don't," Kiffin said. "We've got to avoid the ones that are clear."

Special teams

USC's Andre Heidari has converted three of five field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder against Hawaii. Kris Albarado is averaging 42.4 yards per punt.

Utah State's Nick Diaz has made all three of his field-goal attempts. Jaron Bentrude averages 41.1 yards per punt.

Plenty of room

USC is hoping that its victory over Boston College translates into a larger crowd.

A week after fans at the Coliseum booed Kiffin during a 10-7 loss to Washington State, USC drew an announced crowd of 62,006 for a noon kickoff against Boston College. It was the Trojans' smallest home crowd since Oct. 1, 2011, when they defeated Arizona, 48-41, before an announced crowd of 63,707.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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