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Los Angeles • In a game that was dominated by USC's front seven, it might be easily forgotten that two strong defenses took the field Saturday afternoon.
After a season-opening loss to Utah, the Aggies defense bowed its head, acknowledging it hadn't played well enough to win. Against one of the most athletic teams in the country, it did. When the Aggies had made mistakes and run out of answers on offense, they remained in the contest thanks to defensive stops.
After the 17-14 loss, Matt Wells said his team didn't flinch. The statement applied to the defense, which was able to stop USC three different times when the Trojans started in Utah State's half of the field.
"It's all mentality," linebacker Jake Doughty said. "When it gets to nut-crunching time, you gotta bow up and it's time to see who the bigger man is."
The first half may be ripped apart in the film room: The Aggies gave up two touchdown drives, including a pass from quarterback Cody Kessler to Xavier Grimble that exploited a wide-open acre of grass in the secondary.
The second half was a different story.
USC couldn't move the ball, gaining less than 100 yards in the second act of the game. Kessler completed five passes and took hard hits even on the throws he completed. For the first time all year, Tre Madden was held under the century mark for the game.
Utah State's aggressive schemes gave USC some fits, coming up with three sacks and a forced fumble. Kyler Fackrell was a scourge, getting two of them.
Cornerback Nevin Lawson, one of the team's most-flagged defenders, played surprisingly tight coverage on All-American receiver Marqise Lee, allowing him only a pair of catches in the second half. He nearly had the team's first interception of the year.
In defensive coordinator Todd Orlando's first few games, there have been times when the shadows of Gary Andersen and Dave Aranda have been hard to live up to. After giving up so many yards at Utah, there were some questions as to whether the Aggies could handle more athletic teams.
This time, it was the offense's turn to acknowledge the successes on the other side of the ball.
"The defense played tremendously," receiver Travis Reynolds said. "I was telling our offense with the defense playing very good, we have to go out and score. They did their thing today."
The Aggies also got rave reviews from the other sideline.
"This was hands down the best defense we have played so far," Kessler said. "They were ridiculous with the rush and pass coverage."