LOS ANGELES (MCT) — Chuckie Keeton was born in Northern California and spent his formative years in Texas.
When USC played Texas in the 2006 Bowl Championship Series title game, Keeton went against the grain in the Lone Star state.
"I was USC all the way," he said this week during a phone interview.
Texas' victory over the Trojans did nothing to dissuade the allegiance of Keeton, then 12, who said he donned a USC T-shirt the day he returned to middle school.
"A lot of people were talking trash to me," he recalled.
Seven years later, Keeton is on the fringe of early Heisman Trophy conversation-with a chance to raise his profile against USC.
After leading Utah State to an 11-2 record last season, the junior quarterback guides an offense that has averaged 49.3 points and 550.3 yards during a 2-1 start.
Keeton has passed for 12 touchdowns, with one interception, and also leads the Aggies in rushing.
On Saturday, Keeton plays against USC and its No. 4-ranked defense at the Coliseum, the first time in 35 years Utah State will appear in a national game televised by ABC.
USC Coach Lane Kiffin has compared the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Keeton to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. "He just finds ways to make plays when they're not there," Kiffin said.
Keeton, 20, attended Cypress Creek High in Houston and was recruited by Air Force, Nevada, Rice, Texas, El Paso and others.
After orally committing to Air Force, he reconsidered and signed a letter of intent with Utah State when then-coach Gary Andersen convinced him that he would have an opportunity to compete for a starting job as a freshman.
Keeton started eight games in 2011 and passed for 11 touchdowns, with only two interceptions.
Last season, he passed for 3,373 yards and 27 touchdowns, with nine interceptions. He also rushed for 619 yards and eight touchdowns.
He has looked even more formidable this season.
Keeton passed for two touchdowns and rushed for another in a 30-26 season-opening loss to Utah, then passed for 10 touchdowns in five quarters during routs of Air Force and Weber State. In each of the last two games, Keeton completed passes to 10 receivers.
Keeton said his development has been a process. He saw just how much by reviewing video of the last two seasons.
"I look like a completely different person every year," he said.
USC played against its share of dynamic spread-option quarterbacks during Kiffin's previous three seasons-including Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley-but this will be the first test under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who has infused the Trojans with a "52" scheme and aggressive mentality.
Trojans players were cognizant of Pendergast's style from playing against California, where the former NFL assistant engineered a similar defensive turnaround his first two seasons in Berkeley.
"We knew coach Pendergast had the scheme," junior safety Dion Bailey said. "We just had to show him that we were the players that could put the scheme into motion.
"So far, we're doing OK."
The Trojans rank second nationally in rushing defense and third in sacks. They are sixth in interceptions, tackles for losses and pass-efficiency defense and eighth in scoring defense.
In three games, USC's starting defense has not given up a touchdown.
"I don't know how you could do much better," Kiffin said.
Now comes Keeton, who is unlike any quarterback the Trojans faced against Hawaii, Washington State and Boston College.
"As a game manager, he's very smart," Pendergast said. "They put a lot of the offense in his hands, and he sees the field really well before the ball is snapped."
USC players have prepared by studying video of Keeton.
"He's as good as advertised," linebacker Lamar Dawson said, "but he hasn't played against us. We'll see on Saturday."
Keeton said he expects a large group of family members from California to be at the Coliseum when Utah State attempts to upset the Trojans.
Under Andersen, the Aggies came close to winning games at Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Auburn and Wisconsin.
First-year coach Matt Wells appears to have Utah State poised to get over the hump.
"We've never been afraid of the big stage," Keeton said.
He will try to make it his own against the Trojans.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company