Southern California’s season-opening thrashing of Fresno State was a great coming-out party for new coach Steve Sarkisian, but now the real work starts.
If 14th-ranked USC truly is headed back to the top of the Pac-12, the proof will come on the road Saturday against No. 13 Stanford, the conference's two-time defending champion.
But for the Trojans, this isn’t just about positioning themselves for a run at a playoff spot.
It’s also about avenging two defeats to Stanford that epitomized USC’s downward spiral in recent years: the 55-21 embarrassment in 2009 that included then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh going for a pile-on two-point conversion in the late going and an early-season defeat in Matt Barkley’s senior year of 2012 that exposed USC as a fraudulent preseason No. 1.
Clearly, the Trojans now have the weapons they need to accomplish exactly that against a Stanford team that has won five of the last seven meetings in a rivalry that dates back to 1905.
USC’s offensive attack is no Trojan horse this season, operating on the sly with a hidden plan. Instead, it’s an overt stampede, a nonstop no-huddle system that makes football’s traditional breaks for communication look vastly overrated.
It’s also really fun stuff that should help grow USC’s already dominant brand around the nation and make it even easier to attract marquee players to a school that has always had plenty of them.
In the 52-13 dismantling of Fresno State, the Trojans rattled off a Pac-12 record 105 plays from scrimmage. But the test of whether the hurry-up Trojans are as potent as they seem will come against Stanford, which in recent years has owned a formula for killing tempo by dominating in the trenches.
USC didn’t huddle once during its first three possessions while racking up 21 points and 238 yards. But Sarkisian says it’s a mistake to think the game will hinge entirely on whether his guys can maintain their helter-skelter pace.
Instead, Sarkisian said during a Tuesday conference call with reporters that this Week 2 showdown likely will be decided by three key components:
“Which team can really run the ball, which team can utilize that running game to create some explosive plays in the passing game and who can convert on third down to extend drives. Because as fast as we want to go, if we don’t convert third downs, then we’re standing on the sidelines and not going very fast, and the same can be said for Stanford.”
Besides the fast start, USC’s other gaudy numbers included 37 first downs and 701 yards of total offense. The main cog in all that production was quarterback Cody Kessler, who was 25-of-37 for 394 yards and four touchdowns while connecting with 10 different receivers.
During the Tuesday conference call, Sarkisian said he liked everything he saw from his quarterback:
"I loved the way Cody played Saturday. Cody I thought played really tough, gritty, smart...He really handled the game, playing in a new system, really well. I don’t know if we could have asked any more from him."
Kessler also served notice he’s capable of running as strong of a Heisman Trophy campaign as the player who was widely believed to be the strongest candidate in Los Angeles—UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. But just as importantly for the launch of the Sarkisian era, the Trojans showcased a stable of young talent that should be able to restore their dynastic ways in the Pac-12.
USC played 11 freshmen against Fresno State, the most of any Pac-12 team in this season’s openers. And most of those frosh performances were the real deal, not just cameo, mop-up appearances in a blowout.
Both starting offensive-guard spots were manned by freshmen, with Damien Mama on the right side and Toa Lobendahn on the left. When Mama needed a break, the understudy who came on was another freshman, Viane Talamaivao.
It was the first time since World War II (when such records became official) that USC started a pair of freshmen on the O-line in an opener, according to USCTrojans.com.
USC freshmen had an equally big impact as Kessler’s targets. JuJu Smith caught four passes for a game-high 123 receiving yards. Tight end Bryce Dixon appeared to present a solution to USC’s woes at the position, where Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has been ruled academically ineligible, and Chris Willson suffered a broken foot Saturday.
But it was Adoree’ Jackson who set himself apart as USC’s most exciting and versatile newcomer. The combination receiver-cornerback-returner wounded Fresno State in all three phases of the game while appearing on 13 offensive plays, 25 defensive ones and 14 on special teams.
Jackson’s three catches included an 18-yard score, and Sarkisian said he’d like to see even more of him.
"I'd like to see his role increased more," on offense and defense Sarkisian said during a Sunday teleconference with reporters, via Gary Klein the Los Angeles Times (subscription required). "I think he can handle it. He showed he can handle doing all three phases."
And though the final score made Saturday’s outcome look easy, the Fresno State game also demonstrated this crew can maintain focus if USC continues to be a lightning rod for distractions and controversy.
The fast start erased any notion that USC would be affected by the Josh Shaw fiasco that saw the cornerback suspended because of his fable about injuring his ankles while rescuing a nephew from drowning. Also pushed aside were the social-media posts from running back Anthony Brown, in which the ex-Trojan accused Sarkisian of being a racist.
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Maybe such disruptions are old hat at a school where Reggie Bush handed back his Heisman and Lane Kiffin was fired around midnight midseason. Or maybe Sarkisian simply has an unyielding grasp on a program on the rise.
After the win, Sarkisian acknowledged the week’s difficulty but didn’t gloat about overcoming it.
"There's nowhere in the coaching manual where you go to section 13.2 and it tells you how to handle what we went through this week," Sarkisian told reporters, via David Leon Moore of USA Today. "We handled it the way we handled it, then we went out and played a football game, and it went well."
And if it goes equally well on Saturday, one would guess that USC will have plenty to say about how nice the view is, back atop the Pac-12.
Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.