Week 1 of a new era in USC football is not off to an ideal start for Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Redshirt senior cornerback Josh Shaw was suspended for lying about the circumstances of his ankle injury, per Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com. On Thursday, former cornerback-turned-running back Anthony Brown lambasted Sarkisian in a social media tirade, captured by USCFootball.com's Ryan Abraham.
It's been a week to forget for USC off the field. However, one Trojan can play a big part in making it a distant memory with his performance on the field Saturday against Fresno State: quarterback Cody Kessler.
Sarkisian's first big splash as USC head coach was made when he named Kessler the Trojans' starter in April. He wasn't exactly going out on a limb with the decision—Kessler started all 14 games and led USC to 10 wins a season ago.
But with the buzz surrounding redshirt freshman Max Browne, Kessler also wasn't grandfathered into the No. 1 spot. His own performance in spring football and Sarkisian's vote of confidence made it official.
Saturday is Kessler's chance to validate his head coach's first major decision.
"Cody has a chance to step his game up and go to a whole other level," Sarkisian said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call. "Generally speaking, a quarterback in his second year starting really starts to see those strides."
Kessler went to that next level in last year's season finale, a 45-20 rout of the same Fresno State team USC sees on Saturday. He went 22-of-30 passing and reached career highs with 344 yards and four touchdowns.
It started from an opening drive in which Kessler hit wide receiver Darreus Rogers for 20 yards and Nelson Agholor for 14. That set the table for two scoring strikes of 40 yards.
Kessler effectively buckled the Fresno State defense's knees with his big plays. Bulldogs head coach Tim DeRuyter said in his press conference on Monday that he's using last year's slow start as motivation, via GoBulldogs.com.
"We did not compete as well as what we hoped to last December," he said. "We've challenged our team with that."
Of course, Fresno State is seeing a much different USC offense than it did in the Las Vegas Bowl. Along his naming of Kessler the starting quarterback, the other big splash Sarkisian made in the offseason was his implementation of the no-huddle system.
Saturday is the new offense's debut with Kessler at the controls.
"I think he really has a nice grasp of what we're trying to do offensively," Sarkisian said.
Fresno State sees a fair number of no-huddle offenses playing in the Mountain West Conference, DeRuyter said. But USC's version poses a unique challenge to the Bulldogs defense.
"I don't know that the tempo itself will be something new," he said. "The athletes they have doing it will be different than what we've seen in the past."
Perhaps more than anything else in last season's bowl win, Kessler made effective use of that athletic advantage. Six different receivers from three different positions caught at least two passes.
Agholor will certainly get his targets Saturday, but look for Kessler to also hook up with sophomore running back Justin Davis.
Sarkisian commended the speedy Davis' ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, which should develop into a fundamental component of the Trojans' hurry-up attack.
As for Kessler, blocking out distraction is nothing new when it comes to running the new offense. In fact, he said it's a primary responsibility.
"The tempo is awesome," Kessler said last month at Pac-12 media days. "Especially at the skill spots, you've got to be ready to go...You've got to be locked in and focused the whole time."
Focusing this week could be a challenge, given all the negative outside attention drawn on the Trojans in the past few days. But should their collective focus manifest Saturday with another win over Fresno State, it would be a real testament to the team's leadership.
If Kessler flourishes in the new offense, memories of last week should be wiped away, but memories of even longer ago should come flooding back.
Kessler said he's taken the success of recent Trojans quarterbacks like Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez as motivation heading into the season.
"You expect to win every week," he said. "You expect to be in the national championship discussion because of everything that surrounds you. These guys have set the bar so high, you don't want to let them down."
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.
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