Nothing but about 15 yards of turf separated Fresno State safety Derron Smith from the end zone had the preseason All-American intercepted USC quarterback Cody Kessler's first pass attempt of the 2014 season.
That play was just about the only thing that went awry for No. 15 USC in its 52-13 romp over Fresno State.
With all the turmoil leading into Saturday, a first-pass pick-six would have been an unfortunate yet fitting start to the Trojans' season. It certainly was not an improbable proposition, either—Smith took an interception of Kessler 41 yards to the house in last December's Las Vegas Bowl.
But after the disaster of Smith's near-interception was averted, Kessler settled in to go 25-of-37 passing, tying the career-high of four touchdowns he set against Fresno State last year and set a new personal best mark of 394 yards. He rushed for a fifth touchdown, just for good measure.
On Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said Kessler is "a better athlete than people think." The Trojans' new offensive system used that athleticism with the quarterback taking to the ground more.
As Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com noted, that's a major deviation from a season ago:
Running back Javorius "Buck" Allen added 133 yards rushing and a touchdown, 10 different Trojans caught passes and the USC defense locked down Fresno State's spread offense.
All told, it was a wholly dominant effort for a USC team that could very well have been distracted.
If there was any distraction in the USC locker room, it was the welcome distraction playing Fresno State brought to take attention from the off-field turmoil the Trojans were mired in this week.
In his first postgame press conference as USC head coach, Sarkisian called the outcome “fun," per FoxSports.com's Rahshaun Haylock:
Some fun was just what USC needed after its week.
USCTrojans.com published an account of redshirt cornerback Josh Shaw injuring his ankles while saving his nephew from drowning. By Tuesday, the story began to unravel, and Sarkisian suspended Shaw indefinitely on Wednesday, via Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com.
Just as Shaw started to generate national headlines, cornerback-turned-running back Anthony Brown added fuel to the fire when he went on a since-deleted Instagram rant against Sarkisian.
Though Sarkisian addressed the Shaw situation repeatedly throughout the week, including in an interview on ESPN’s College Gameday Saturday morning, it was apparently a non-issue internally.
Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times tweeted that Sarkisian said USC blocked out any possible distraction by not dwelling on it:
Any frustration the Trojans may have felt was exorcised at Fresno State's expense. In the process, USC started writing a much different narrative for the outset of the Sarkisian era
Distractions accompanied the 1-5 finish to USC's 2012 season, and they persisted through the first month of the 2013 campaign. Constant questions about former head coach Lane Kiffin's status seemingly plagued USC in its 3-2 start. The team's immediate turnaround following Kiffin's dismissal supports the idea.
Sarkisian's forthright manner of dealing with the Shaw story was a positive step toward establishing a different tone from USC's previous era.
As for the team, it can perhaps thank the previous seasons' turmoil for Saturday's resounding response.
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who was one of four Trojans with an interception Saturday, said last month at Pac-12 media days that past issues gave USC “a chip on [its] shoulder,” but had also taught the team to come together.
"We're looking past all the old, bad stuff in the past and just looking forward to having a great season," Williams said.
That type of mindset proved useful this week and should help buoy USC throughout its pursuit of the Pac-12 Conference championship.
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