Stud: Cody Kessler
If there was any doubt about Cody Kessler’s claim to a spot among the best quarterbacks in the top ten, he ended them against Fresno State.
The quarterback put in a performance worthy of his highly-decorated predecessors. In practical terms, he evoked memories of Mark Sanchez at his best. In more fanciful terms, he played at a level that would make Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart proud.
Even as Steve Sarkisian aimed to up the tempo for USC, things seemed to slow down for Kessler. He calmly avoided the pass rush, found his receivers with a deft touch, rarely forced what wasn’t there and intelligently took what was.
Dud: Fresno State QBs
From a Fresno State perspective, the big story heading into the opener at the Coliseum was the quarterback competition. Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette were listed as co-starters in the game week depth chart. Tim DeRuyter made it clear that both would likely play even though Burrell ultimately took the field first.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, neither were particularly effective in replacement of Derek Carr.
Combined they passed for 160 yards against the Trojans with no touchdowns and four interceptions.
Burrell was the more efficient of the two, but the offense as a whole looked least effective with him at the helm. Connette seemed to get the Bulldogs going, but he didn’t take care of the ball, throwing three interceptions on his own.
Where to begin?
When USC brought in the 2014 recruiting class, the assumption was always that there would be opportunities for many of the young players to see real playing time early in their careers. Given the Trojan’s depth problems it would be a necessity.
Still, it’s doubtful anyone foresaw this level of participation.
USC started two true freshmen on the offensive line. Toa Lobendahn and Damien Mama both performed admirably in their debuts. Mama in particular stood out in the running game as he opened massive holes for the Trojan running backs.
At receiver, the Trojans also got major contributions from JuJu Smith, who led all players in receiving yards, and Adoree’ Jackson who nabbed a touchdown while also playing on defense.
Though he dropped a couple passes, tight end Bryce Dixon also had a promising showing. He caught a touchdown and proved surprisingly effective in his blocking assignments.
Dud: Running Backs
It’s that they made the key mistakes which could have proved costly under different circumstances. The two turnovers USC committed didn’t come back to bite them, but they are the kinds of errors that turn comfortable victories into nail-biters.
Going forward, more will be expect of two players who were pegged to be key figures this fall.
Stud: Steve Sarkisian
The head coach earned a victory, but also submitted a statement of intent.
USC has as much raw talent as anyone in the nation and you get the feeling Sarkisian knows it. That’s why he’s not making excuses and he’s not playing it safe.
Starting freshman was a gutsy move, but it paid off. The growing pains will certainly come around. The excitement of these players will make up for it though. And they’ll pay dividends for many years to come.
Beyond the freshmen, Sarkisian proved that he and his coaching staff are capable of handling the pressures that come with working for USC. Despite all the distractions that preceded this weekend, the players were focused and prepared.
As it turns out, the Trojan defense survived just fine without Shaw. The Trojan offense certainly didn’t seem to need Brown. More importantly, there was no hint of any distraction among the USC ranks.
Obviously, time will tell on Shaw’s impact against more formidable opponents. For now, however, the controversy played no role in the opener.