LOS ANGELES -- If there's one thing the Utah State Aggies have proven in recent years, it's that they have what it takes to compete with several of the nation's top teams.
What they haven't shown is an ability to beat those opponents.
Cody Kessler passed for 164 yards and a touchdown, and Southern California held the explosive Aggies in check Saturday in winning a hard-fought 17-14 decision.
"Time and time again it just hasn't worked out for us," senior linebacker Jake Doughty said. "We were right there with them, but they made a few more plays than we did. It hurts."
The victory was USC's second straight after a disappointing 10-7 loss to Pac-12 doormat Washington State. Utah State has lost only five of its last 23 games, with the five losses coming by a total of 13 points.
Among the close losses to outstanding teams in recent years were a 31-24 setback at Oklahoma in 2010, a 42-38 loss to defending BCS champion Auburn in 2011, and a 16-14 defeat to Wisconsin last season.
"We fell short against Oklahoma, then Auburn, then Wisconsin," said Travis Reynolds, who had five receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown against USC. "Today it's really tough because it's my senior year."
Utah State (2-2) averaged 49.3 points, 29 first downs and 550.3 yards and converted 30 of 46 third-down opportunities in its first three games. USC held the Aggies to just 285 yards, 13 first downs and 5 of 17 third-down conversions.
"The defense played lights out just as they have been doing for the last four games," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said. "Defensive coordinator Clancy (Pendergast) had a great plan going in and we played physical defense. We used great schemes and we were able to control a great quarterback and rusher."
Kiffin referred to Utah State's Chuckie Keeton, who completed 21 of 39 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns while being sacked four times -- twice by Morgan Breslin and once each by George Uko and Devon Kennard. Keeton threw for 923 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for a team-leading 187 yards in his team's first three games this season. He wound up with a net of minus 10 yards on the ground against the Trojans.
"We strung them (the Trojans) out, we packed them in, we shifted out, we motioned, we gave them every look that we could give them to try get (Keeton) uncorked a little bit," first-year Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "But they made plays."
"We expected a hard-fought game that would go down to the fourth quarter, and that's what it was," Wells said "Our guys didn't flinch. You look at the stat sheet and it's almost down to the yard."
Andre Heidari's 25-yard field goal with 13:35 remaining provided the Trojans with the winning points Saturday.
Tre Madden gained 93 yards on 24 carries for the Trojans (3-1), who were held to just 282 total yards. Kessler's 1-yard sneak on a fourth-and-inches play from the Utah State 25-yard line with two minutes remaining enabled USC to run out the clock. Kessler completed 13 of his 27 passes.
Heidari, who missed a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter, kicked his game-winner six plays after Jaron Bentrude's 12-yard punt gave the Trojans the ball at the Utah State 24-yard line.
Utah State tried a fake punt on fourth-and-11 from its 34 with 101/2 minutes left, but D.J. Tialavea's pass fell incomplete.
USC couldn't take advantage, but Kris Albarado's punt was downed at the Aggies' 2-yard line.
Southern Cal 17,
Utah State 14
At Los Angeles
Utah State 0 7 7 0 -- 14
Southern Cal 7 7 0 3 -- 17
USC--Madden 1 run (Heidari kick), 5:41.
USU--Swindall 8 pass from Keeton (Diaz kick), 13:17.
USC--Grimble 30 pass from Kessler (Heidari kick), 5:13.
USU--Reynolds 10 pass from Keeton (Diaz kick), 6:51.
USC--Heidari 25 field goal, 13:35.
First downs 13 17
Rushes-yards 27-106 39-118
Passing 179 164
Comp-Att-Int 21-40-0 13-27-0
Return yards 0 0
Punts-avg. 8-34.5 7-35.4
Fumbles-lost 0-0 4-1
Penalties-yards 11-89 8-58
Time of possession 27:46 32:14
Rushing--Utah State, DeMartino 9-72, Hill 5-51, Butler 1-(minus 2), Keeton 12-(minus 15). Southern Cal, Madden 24-93, Davis 6-17, Agholor 1-13, Lee 1-8, Team 3-(minus 5), Kessler 4-(minus 8).
Passing--Utah State., Keeton 21-39-0-179, Tialavea 0-1-0-0. Southern Cal, Kessler 13-27-0-164.
Receiving--Utah State, Reynolds 5-70, Van Leeuwen 4-31, Natson 4-21, Tialavea 3-10, Swindall 2-21, Hill 2-18, DeMartino 1-8. Southern Cal, Lee 6-72, Madden 3-15, Grimble 2-39, Agholor 2-38.