Cody Kessler is the Wrong Focal Point of USC’s Offense


After three losses in the first six games of 2015, USC football has a problem on offense. His name is Cody Kessler.

RELATED: 50 Greatest USC Football Players of the Last 50 Years

More specifically, USC’s offense is focused on the wrong player.

Going into the 2015 season there was talk that Kessler was a Heisman candidate. It was universally acknowledged that the candidacy was unlikely to stick, but he had put up enough numbers in 2014 to warrant some attention.

Of course, anyone who bothered looking deeper at those numbers knew that the statistics were flawed. Kessler put up big figures against weak opposition, but had yet to prove himself against formidable foes when the pressure was on.

Steve Sarkisian, Clay Helton and the coaching staff could be forgiven for spending the offseason believing that perhaps Kessler would put it all together as a redshirt senior.

Three games into the season, that perception should have begun to crack against Stanford. Kessler put in a strong overall performance, but he lost his cool at the end of the game when USC needed heroics from the quarterback to get the victory.

Four games into the season, the concern should have reached actionable levels when Washington pulled away at the Coliseum. This time there was no reason to continue to lean on Kessler. He had not proven capable of leading a comeback against Stanford. Even more damning, he was off his game from the first whistle. Yet the ball was in his hands in the key moments once again.

Helton himself acknowledged that he should have run the ball more against Washington.

Oct 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans tailback Ronald Jones (25) carries the ball against the Washington Huskies at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Only, he did not listen to his own critique because when it came time to finish off Notre Dame, Helton repeated the same mistake. With time to spare in the game, the offense was loaded onto Kessler’s shoulders instead of the running backs’. Again Helton was forced to concede after the game that Ronald Jones II and company should have been given more carries.

Consider this: All five of Kessler’s interceptions in 2015 have been thrown when the Trojans were either even with the opposition or losing.

He has not scored a touchdown while USC trailed by more than seven points this season. With a sample size of 36 passes, that is not a meaningless statistic. Out of the 76 touchdowns Kessler has thrown while the Trojan quarterback, just four have come in that circumstance.

This is not meant to be an indictment of Kessler. Not completely.

He is not the quarterback who wins you games. But he is not one who will lose them for you either. A capable quarterback, Kessler’s 17-5 touchdown to interception ratio and exceptional quarterback rating is a reflection of how efficient he can be.

Not all quarterbacks can be elite and not all teams need an elite quarterback to be successful.

Kessler bears his portion of the criticism, but he is who he is as a quarterback. And after 33 games with him at the helm, USC should know who Kessler is as a quarterback.

Given the availability of these stats, given the visibility of his struggles in these key situations, given everything that has been and continues to be apparent, Kessler is one half of the problem. The way the coaching staff leans on him is the other half of the problem.

Kessler threw the ball 46 times against Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the Trojans have not eclipsed the 40 carry mark in any game thus far, despite a per carry average of 5.25 on the year. They have maintained an average of 4.87 yards per carry or above in all three losses.

To put that in perspective, Cal has run the ball 27 more times than USC in 2015. Only Washington and Washington State have run the ball less in the Pac-12 but only UCLA, Oregon and Arizona have a better per-carry average than the Trojans.

Sarkisian liked to call his offense a run-first offense but it rarely played out that way, with more emphasis on keeping things balanced than living up to label.

If Helton wants to turn this season around he will need to first recognize what works and what doesn’t, then acknowledge what the strengths and weakness of his players are, and apply that knowledge to the offense.

It’s time for the premiere of the Ronald Jones II show featuring Tre Madden and Justin Davis.

In other words, make the talented trio of running backs the focal point of the offense rather than the quarterback who is not equipped to bear that burden.

Give the struggling offensive line a hill to run down rather than keeping them, and the quarterback, vulnerable in a pass protection scheme they continually fail to grasp.

Go back under center rather than persist with shotgun snaps neither Max Tuerk nor Toa Lobendahn seem comfortable with and which disrupt the rhythm of the passing game.

Kessler is the problem but he does not need to be. USC can win plenty of games with him at quarterback. They did in 2013, back when the then-redshirt sophomore was on a leash of 25 passes per game on average. These days he averages 32 attempts per game.

Back then USC’s offense was the Buck Allen show. It’s time for the premiere of the Ronald Jones II show featuring Tre Madden and Justin Davis.

The “Kessler For Heisman” experiment has ended. The sooner Helton shifts the focus, the sooner Kessler and the Trojans can get back to being successful.

More from Reign of Troy