USC starting quarterback Cody Kessler could do little wrong on Saturday against the Fresno State Bulldogs. His performance should be a welcome sight for Trojan fans, as it appears the teams has the calm, competent signal-caller it needs to restore the program to its former glory.
While Oregon and Stanford duke it out for supremacy in the Pac-12 North, Kessler displayed the type of poise and telepathic rapport with his wide receivers that could lead the Trojans to a shocking appearance as the top team in the Pac-12 South.
USC dominated Fresno State in Week 1, rolling to a 52-13 victory. Kessler was superlative, completing 25 of 37 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. There were few misfires, and even fewer miscues.
Kessler completed passes to 10 different Trojan players on the day, with true freshman Juju Smith emerging as his favorite target (four catches, 123 yards).
Junior standout Nelson Agholor caught two touchdown passes during the game, and Kessler got freshman Adoree' Jackson his first touchdown as a Trojan during the contest.
In fact, Kessler kicked off the scoring by carrying the ball into the end zone himself, as if his arm wasn't going to be enough to beat Fresno State.
ESPN's Arash Markazi noted Kessler looked very comfortable on Saturday:
Cody Kessler is so much more comfortable this season. Commands the huddle, checks down, buys time and makes the smart play.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) August 31, 2014
It's just one game, and Kessler will have to come back down to earth—which could be as early as next week against Stanford. However, those stats against Fresno State aren't misleading, even if they are unlikely to be duplicated.
Kessler confirmed that he has a firm grasp of what head coach Steve Sarkisian and offensive coordinator want out of him in this new, no-huddle offense. ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz noted that Kessler does have some experience with this type of system:
When transitioning to a new system, it’s always good to have an established veteran at quarterback, and the Trojans have that in Cody Kessler. The no-huddle, shotgun elements of the offense are familiar to Kessler after playing in that system in high school. He has made a smooth transition through spring ball and fall camp.
Kessler is well aware the offense is predicated on speed to keep defenses off balance.
"That's a huge emphasis, first and foremost, pretty much of this offense," he said in early August, via Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "Make sure you're lined up right, but at the same time be fast and get the ball off."
The Trojans came into Week 1 with a No. 15 ranking in the preseason AP poll, and they should get bumped up a couple of spots after this performance.
This is despite the fact that they featured nine true freshmen against the Bulldogs, per the team's official Twitter account:
Everyone’s getting in on the action today - USC has played 9 true freshman and Kessler has hit 6 different receivers through one half.— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) August 31, 2014
Youth will carry the team, placing the onus on Kessler to become a commanding leader and an example for the younger players.
The pressure Kessler will face this season could be a breeze compared to the onslaught of chaos he faced during 2013. The Trojans went through three different head coaches last season, and yet Kessler still managed to guide his team to a 10-4 record. He threw just 20 touchdowns against seven interceptions last year but should easily surpass the former total.
Kessler won't be the sole reason for USC's rise. The Trojans return several key players on defense, including defensive end Leonard Williams and safety Su'a Cravens.
If he can avoid the (mostly) uneven performances he put up in the team's three conference losses from last season, the Trojans should be all set to surprise many observers and re-establish their dominance in the Pac-12.
|Sep 7||Washington State||7-10||8/13||41||0||1||72.6|
|Sep 28||Arizona State||41-62||20/29||295||2||2||163.4|
Of course, for Kessler to take the Trojans to the top of the Pac-12 South, he will (almost certainly) have to beat UCLA. The Bruins are in the midst of a resurgent period with head coach Jim Mora at the helm and have featured a number of defensive stars over the years.
The UCLA secondary will be one of the toughest Kessler faces in the Pac-12, and the team as a whole is a strong bet to finish atop the Pac-12 South, if not the entire conference. In fact, it was this very unit that led the Bruins to their opening win over Virginia. Eric Kendricks and Ishmael Adams both returned interceptions for touchdowns in that contest.
Luckily for Kessler and company, they don't face the Bruins until November, and by then freshmen like Smith and Jackson will look much more like experienced collegiate threats.
Finishing atop the Pac-12 South will be a Herculean task in and of itself under a first-year head coach. A run at the conference championship or the newly installed playoffs are likely well out of reach for the Trojans this season, especially with the Ducks' explosive offense lurking and talented teams like Florida State and Alabama set for their usual winter success.