The three points separating USC from Utah State in Saturday's 17-14 Trojans win were not entirely indicative of the difference between the two teams.
The Trojans offense left points on the field, which would have given USC's outstanding defense more breathing room down the stretch.
Any concerns about the Trojans' missed opportunities should not be directed at head coach Lane Kiffin's play-calling.
On the contrary, Kiffin built upon a strategy introduced in USC's Week 3 rout of Boston College that made life easier on quarterback Cody Kessler. The Trojans came at Utah State's excellent rush defense with a steady diet of running back Tre Madden, and it paid dividends.
Kessler's one touchdown throw came on a drive that developed from seven consecutive rushes: four by Madden, three from freshman Justin Davis. The approach forced Utah State defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to load the tackle box, which USC exploited with two Kessler pass plays.
That first pass play on the touchdown drive was a one of six successful connections Kessler made with wide receiver Marqise Lee, the second a perfectly executed strike to tight end Xavier Grimble for a 30-yard touchdown.
Kiffin stressed during Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference that Kessler was exuding more confidence since he was named the team's definitive starting quarterback, saying, "you know, when you complete … whatever that is … almost 90 percent of your passes, that’s going to help."
Indeed, the redshirt sophomore looked comfortable in the pocket and was afforded ample time to survey the field, particularly in the first half. His throws were typically crisp and typically placed in position for his targets to make the reception.
When Kessler sees the field as well as he did throughout the first half and passes confidently, USC has the ingredients for a potentially dangerous offense, and that particular scoring drive demonstrated it.
Other instances were indicative of the areas Kiffin and staff still need to iron out with the meat of the conference schedule still ahead. Kessler unleashed a similar ball with Aggies coverage drawn away from the middle of the field, but Lee dropped a surefire touchdown.
Tight end Randall Telfer failed to pull in another Kessler pass that had big yardage written all over it. Drops have been a recurring issue for this corps of pass-catchers early on, though one likely to be resolved as rhythm with Kessler is further developed.
When Kessler and Lee click, USC looks its most intriguing. Among the few occasions Kiffin didn't call for a less methodical, ground-based attack to open a possession, Lee blew past his defender on a perfectly ran slant-and-go route.
The result was a 33-yard gain, furthering Lee's climb up the annals of Trojan history.
What ensued was another miscue that kept USC from capitalizing.
Utah State linebacker Kyler Fackrell sacked Kessler from the blind side to jar the ball loose. Fackrell blew past left tackle Chad Wheeler on a blitz that wasn't disguised; Wheeler was merely caught flat-footed.
If USC executes a few more of these plays, the final score would be much more indicative of the team's overall dominant performance. With fine-tuning, the Trojans will capitalize on these opportunities, and that should have USC in the thick of the Pac-12 South hunt as the season progresses.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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