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HELENE ELLIOTT

Confidence is both friend and enemy of USC ahead of Utah State game

As the Trojans prepare to face the Aggies on Saturday, Coach Lane Kiffin walks the line in keeping his players confident enough to win and alert to perils.

Helene Elliott

11:25 PM CDT, September 19, 2013

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The question was simple.

Coming off a big win over Boston College last week, how will Coach Lane Kiffin ensure the Trojans aren't overconfident against the Utah State Aggies at the Coliseum on Saturday?

Kiffin, who bought himself a week's peace with that romp and muted the cries for his head that intensified after the Trojans' loss to Washington State the previous week, joked that he hadn't heard the rout of BC called "big" before. But it was immense statistically and, undoubtedly, in helping to keep him employed.

After that humorous pause, Kiffin provided an insightful answer.

"I don't think we have an overconfidence issue because we don't have a lot to be confident about, you know?" he said.

Sad but true.

The reprieve Kiffin enjoyed this week will end if USC produces a poor or losing performance on Saturday. If this was a game fans penciled in as an easy win before the season, that was erased after the loss to Washington State affirmed the Trojans' new reality.

No game will be easy. And the slightest stumble this week, next week or the week after that will put heat on Kiffin again.

His task on Saturday is difficult: to keep his players confident enough to believe they can win while keeping them alert to the perils posed by programs like Washington State and Utah State, which consider a victory over USC a crowning achievement.

"Success breeds confidence with kids. So when they have a lot of success they become more confident," Kiffin said after practice Thursday.

"And confidence is fragile, no matter who you are, and it can get shaken. And that happened in Week 2. Our guys went back to work and reminded them of how they improve and it's about preparation, and they went out and played really well.

"That's why I say I'm not worried about being overconfident because there hasn't been enough success experienced with this team to be overconfident."

Utah State, which will be on national TV for the first time since 1978, is a dangerous opponent that likes to score early and often. The Aggies have been on the verge of earning significant wins each of the last few seasons but have never quite closed them out. If they clear that hump on Saturday, they might as well take Kiffin home with them.

In 2011 the Aggies scared then-defending national champion Auburn, which had to score twice in the final 2 minutes and 7 seconds for a 42-38 win. In an 11-2 season last year they lost to Wisconsin, 16-14, after a late missed field-goal attempt, and 6-3 at Brigham Young. In their opener this year they led Utah at halftime before falling, 30-26.

They've produced 500 yards of total offense in seven of their last nine games, including each of their last two. They figure to provide a stiff test for the Trojans' defense, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in rushing defense, sacks, total defense, interceptions, pass efficiency defense, tackles for loss and scoring defense.

Then again, the Trojans haven't seen anyone like Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who is tied for first in the nation with Oregon State's Sean Mannion with 12 touchdown passes and leads his team in rushing with 187 yards in 28 carries.

"This is the best offense coming in here that we've played. Very dynamic," Kiffin said.

The Aggies are also confident, with good reason.

"I don't think there's going to be anybody shying away from anything with this game. This is what we live for," running back Joey DeMartino told reporters in Logan, Utah, this week.

"At this rate we plan on going in there and winning. We aren't just going to be the team that goes in there and fights until the last minute anymore like in the past. I feel like we're a team that can play a complete game, and that's what we have to do to win this game," DeMartino said.

Kiffin said he hasn't gone back to the Washington State loss or manufactured reasons his players must be wary about Utah State.

"We don't have to make it up. It's on film," he said, singling out Keeton's versatility and the pass-rushing skills of linebacker Kyler Fackrell. "We can show them the five returning offensive linemen, how well they play.

"This is a big-time team that doesn't have the big-time name that fans necessarily recognize, but if you put them in different uniforms you'd say, 'Wow, that's a great team.'"

It has been a long time since anyone has said that about USC. That's the new reality.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen