Cody Kessler's first touchdown pass of the Ed Orgeron era was a perfectly thrown, 62-yard strike to a streaking Nelson Agholor against Arizona. That play set the tone for a turnaround in the redshirt sophomore quarterback's performance that is both indicative of and a reason for USC’s second-half resurgence.
In going for such gusto early in their new roles, interim head coach Orgeron and offensive coordinator Clay Helton showed supreme confidence in Kessler. The quarterback's reciprocated with a more confident demeanor on the field.
“I see all the intangibles," Orgeron said in his weekly press conference on Sunday. "A quarterback with moxie, a quarterback with leadership skills, a quarterback that’s close to everybody on the team, and that the team is growing in confidence with."
Never was that confidence more evident than on one of Kessler's more recent throws. On fourth down and two yards to go Saturday against fourth-ranked Stanford, Orgeron and Helton again showed their confidence in Kessler by putting the game on his shoulders.
He responded with another pass indicative of the transformation under which both USC and Kessler have gone, finding junior wide receiver Marqise Lee—who came back in despite injury—for a 13-yard gain.
Another completion to Agholor followed to move the ball in range for field-goal kicker Andre Heidari.
“I looked in these guys' eyes and I knew they wanted to go for it," Orgeron said in his postgame press conference Saturday, per USCTrojans.com. "It could have gone the other way, I understand that. But it was a good throw."
The decision set up the Trojans for their most dramatic win of 2013, and one of the most emotionally charged victories the program's seen in the last half-decade.
The big plays give USC highlight reel material, but it’s the less spectacular moves that demonstrate the evolution of Kessler from an “or” on the depth chart with Max Wittek through the season's initial weeks, to a field general amid the Trojans' five-game Pac-12 win streak.
Stanford brought a defense to the Coliseum that thrives on wreaking havoc in opposing backfields. The sack-happy Cardinal relentlessly pressure quarterbacks and parlay that into turnovers. Such a strategy could have been a recipe for disaster for Kessler earlier in the season, when he was one of the conference's most frequently sacked quarterbacks.
But Saturday in USC’s 20-17 win, it was Kessler’s ability to handle pressure and make the right decisions that sealed the win. Where he would have taken sacks earlier in the season, Kessler used his mobility to evade Stanford’s dynamic pass-rushers like Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson and Shayne Skov. He then found safety valve receivers to turn potential negative-yardage plays into gains.
It didn’t produce a lot of points—no offense really does against Stanford’s defense—but it was crucial to USC winning the all-important field position battle. And that’s one of the primary factors deciding Saturday’s outcome.
"For me, I just wanted to just take care of the ball, that's my main thing," he said in his postgame press conference. “Don't turn it over. Be smart and don't make mistakes.”
Those are the intangibles Orgeron mentioned in a nutshell. Kessler’s quickly turned his early-season struggles into veteran savvy.
He has a five-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio in the last four games—all Trojan wins. In that same stretch, his completion percentages are 65.6, 81, 82.4 and 67.6 percent.
Kessler is completing a high percentage of passes, sure, but perhaps more importantly is that he's doing so among a wider variety of targets. Against Stanford, Kessler found eight different receivers. He connected with eight against Cal in less than three quarters of work, seven at Oregon State and seven against Utah.
By contrast, he connected with just four receivers in early season games against Hawaii, Utah State and Washington State.
With more confidence in his receivers, more confidence from his coaches and more confidence in his own abilities, Kessler has evolved into the right leader for the surging Trojans—no ifs, ands or "ors" about it.