It was hardly exciting but USC did what it needed to Saturday afternoon to get past Utah State 17-14 to improve to 3-1 this season.
"Very hard fought game today," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin after the game.
In the first quarter, quarterback Cody Kessler handed the ball off to tailback Tre Madden for a one-yard carry and the Trojans first touchdown of the game. Kessler later found tight end Xavier Grimble for a 30-yard strike in the second quarter to put USC up 14-7.
The Trojans were unable to find the end zone in the second half. A Andre Heidari 28 yard field goal proved to be the difference in the game. After a botched Utah State 12 yard punt provided USC favorable field position, Heidari hit the field goal to break the tie at 14 and put USC up by three.
Kessler finished just 13-of-27 for 164 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times, fumbling once.
"I feel like we played efficiently to where we didn't turn the ball over, except on the sack fumble," Kessler said after the game. "Obviously there is some stuff we missed and wish we had back."
Though the scoreboard read a Trojan win, the game only seemed to highlight the continuing problems for USC's offense.
The Trojans were just three of 14 on third down conversions. Kessler overthrew a few of his targets; receivers also dropped multiple passes.
"It's going up and down and you can't predict every week," Kiffin said of the Trojans' passing game. "We will go back to work and do better next time."
Asked what USC's offense needs to work on, Kessler said "Everything."
Utah State actually outgained USC by three yards in the loss, though the Trojans' defense held Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton and his offense to their lowest total yardage this season.
Defense does it again
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's unit was back to its way against Utah State, putting together another dominating performance proving why the Trojans' defense is one of the top-rated in the country.
"So many times [Utah State] had an opportunity to score but our defense just kept going out there," Kiffin said.
"Coach Pendergast sets us up every week to play well in the scheme," explained defensive end George Uko after the game. "We feel good, we are confident."
Going into Saturday's game, the Aggies had scored 38 or more points in their last nine of 10 matchups – but the Trojans' defense held the Aggies to just 14. The Aggies were also held to 202 fewer total yards of offense than they've been allowed in their three other contests this season.
USC's defensive effort was led by sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams who made eight tackles, three for a loss.
Outside linebacker Morgan Breslin sacked Keeton twice. Breslin now has four sacks this season and a career total at USC of 17.
"We have a physical defense out there," Kiffin said. "There was a lot of stuff we set out to do in January for this program that is taking place."
Where is Lee?
Through four games receiver Marqise Lee has caught 23 passes for 293 yards and one touchdown.
A season ago through four games? Lee had already racked up 40 catches for 357 yards and six touchdowns on his way to winning the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver.
After Saturday's win Kiffin said Lee "isn't even close" to 100% health.
Does that mean Lee is still trying to come back from the shoulder injury suffered during fall camp? That when trainers checked out his ankle in the first half it was more serious than one would assume since he returned to the game? That the cold Lee was sniffling because of earlier in the week had turned into the flu?
Kiffin doesn't provide specifics when it comes to injuries.
When asked after the game if he is healthy Lee said, "Somewhat. I'm good."
Madden's streak is over
The brightest spot on USC's offense this season has been redshirt sophomore Tre Madden.
Madden rushed for over 100 yards in each of the Trojans' first three games; he was the first USC player to do so since Marcus Allen's 1981 Heisman Trophy season.
But the tailback's streak came to an end against the Aggies. Madden carried the ball 24 times for 93 yards including a touchdown. He caught three passes for 15 yards.
During his postgame press conference Kiffin repeatedly mentioned that his squad is ailing in the injury department.
Sophomore offensive lineman Zach Banner did not dress for the game.
"I wish we were healthier," Kiffin said. "I can't imagine anyone in the world plays with numbers like this."
Sticking to his own policy, Kiffin will not address any specific injury inquiries.