Los Angeles • The Aggies expected it to be a fourth-quarter battle. It was.
The Aggies expected a physical game "and old-fashioned gladiator slug-out," Matt Wells called it. It was.
But Utah State (2-2) didn't expect to lose, falling 17-14 against USC (3-1) in the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon. In the slug-out, it was the Trojans who threw the final punch with a 25-yard field goal.
With more than 13 minutes left in the game, the Aggies never found an answer, falling on what could be their biggest stage all year. Although Utah State's defense gave them a chance with numerous short-field stops, the Chuckie Keeton-led offense never found a rhythm against the tough Trojans front.
"It's a good front seven, and that front five is pretty good," Wells said, his head high after the game. "We spread them out, we packed it in, we shifted out and we motioned. We gave them every look we could give them to try to get [Keeton] uncorked a little bit. "
Utah State's offense was held to a season-low 285 yards, and their star quarterback to whom several football observers have pinned Heisman aspirations looked human. He scrambled and squirmed away from the USC pass rush, which athletically dominated the Aggies' offensive line with third-down blitzes.
Keeton managed 179 yards through the air and two touchdown passes, but he couldn't find anywhere to run. The Aggies' final drive stalled out with 3:33 at midfield when Keeton was tackled short of the first-down marker.
The defense had held USC to three points on three fourth-quarter drives that started in their own half, but it could not stop the Trojans from running out the clock.
Utah State has suffered a number of close efforts against high profile programs in recent seasons: Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Auburn, Wisconsin. Now, add USC to the list.
"We had some good plays, some good stops; honestly, when it came down to it, we didn't make enough," linebacker Jake Doughty said. "It hurts coming in here time and time again in these big games. It just doesn't work out for us."
Utah State tied the game twice on spectacular drives. In the second quarter, a 55-yard run by Joey DeMartino brought the Aggies to the goal line for a touchdown catch by Brandon Swindall. In the third, Utah State's offense reared its head for a 72-yard drive that kept USC on its heels, capped with a 10-yard scoring pass to Travis Reynolds.
The rest of the day, Utah State seemed to be playing catch-up, even when it was a draw.
The team only was 5-for-17 on third down conversions and coverted on fourth down once. Although DeMartino and Joe Hill had success in bursts, the run game often sputtered, especially when Keeton tried to keep the ball. Overthrows and miscommunications also hurt, often forced by USC pass rushers romping in the backfield.
Special teams miscues have also become a theme in Utah State's losses to high-level teams: Saturday was no exception. The Aggies gave up ground in the field position battle, especially in the second half. A 12-yard shanked punt led to USC's eventual game-winning drive. The Aggies also gave up 11 penalties for 89 yards.
The Trojans showed some explosion early, getting touchdowns on a short run by Tre Madden and a 30-yard pass from Cody Kessler to Xavier Grimble. But they were locked down for the most part by an aggressive Aggies defense. Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee had six catches for 72 yards but failed to score.