It hasn’t taken the Pac-12 schedule long to give the college football world a marquee matchup, with No. 14 Southern California and No. 13 Stanford facing off Saturday in Palo Alto.
And for the Trojans to pull off an upset, it will take a top-notch performance from a slightly hobbled Cody Kessler.
USC’s starting signal-caller underwent a small procedure earlier this week to fix what is believed to be a toe injury, per a report from ESPN.com. Not much has been said publicly about the injury, but Kessler is expected to be ready for Saturday afternoon’s game:
USC QB Cody Kessler will play Saturday http://t.co/SpGapcFuId— ESPN Pac-12 (@ESPN_Pac12blog) September 2, 2014
There were early reports that Kessler was treated for a staph infection, but that has since been reported as false, according to the Orange County Register's Michael Lev:
I've been told that, contrary to reports, #USC QB Cody Kessler did not have a staph infection in his toe.— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) September 3, 2014
The Trojans were able to knock off Stanford last year at home, but it took an early touchdown and a field goal in the final minute against the Top Five team to do so. Kessler attempted a season-high 37 passes and completed 25 of them for 288 yards and a touchdown, and it will certainly take a similar performance on the road this week for USC to take an early advantage in the Pac-12 standings.
While Kessler isn’t known as a top-rated passer or Heisman Trophy candidate, he manages the game well and is not prone to turnovers, which is always key in matchups against a formidable opponent. He tossed seven interceptions last season (none against Stanford) and only had one two-pick game in 2013—at Arizona State in a 62-41 loss.
Kessler’s success is also a high priority for the Trojans because of Stanford’s historical success against the run. The Cardinal only allowed 23 yards on the ground last year against USC and return seven starters on defense. They have three seniors on their defensive line and two at linebacker.
The Trojans offensive line lost three starters, including center Marcus Martin to the NFL, which isn’t very conducive for a high-functioning rushing game against an experienced defense.
But USC is talented enough at wide receiver with Nelson Agholor, who was an All-Conference player in 2013, to make things happen with the passing game if Kessler can find time to throw and do so accurately.
Freshman JuJu Smith and sophomore Darreus Rogers are also threats through the air. Rogers caught 22 balls last season and had five against Fresno State to begin the 2014 season. Smith led the Trojans last week with 123 yards on four catches.
USC had 10 different players record a catch against Fresno State in the 52-13 win, and Kessler completed 25 passes for nearly 400 yards. One can’t expect those numbers to be that high against Stanford, but the same proficiency from the junior quarterback and vast distribution is a must again this week.
One has to expect Stanford to keep a close eye on Agholor, which means Kessler will need to keep his eye out for whoever is open and not depend on his top receiver to be available in crunch-time situations.
Kessler’s confidence should be high after a strong performance to begin the season, and that confidence will need to translate into a lot of yards and completions this week for USC to win.