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LOS ANGELES — The joy was unmistakable on the faces of Cody Kessler and Steve Sarkisian.
Seconds after Kessler delivered his final touchdown strike of USC's 52-13 season-opening demolition of visiting Fresno State on Saturday night, the junior quarterback ran in the direction of his head coach and the two met in midair for a flying chest bump.
The fun-filled night was just what the Trojans needed at the end of a chaotic, distraction-filled week. Kessler threw for a career-high 394 yards and four touchdowns in less than three quarters of action, leading USC to a therapeutic victory that shifted the focus from everything that went wrong off the field this week to everything that could be possible on it later this season.
Of course, shredding Fresno State isn't the same as doing it against elite opposition, but consider Saturday's performance a warning shot from Kessler and the Trojans. USC shouldn't be discounted as a potential Pac-12 title threat even though it plays in the same conference as highly ranked Oregon, UCLA and Stanford. Nor should Kessler be overlooked as one of the quarterback-rich Pac-12's top passing threats even if he plays in the same league as Heisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley.
"Cody had a great game," Sarkisian said. "I've always thought Cody would be a good fit in this system. I think it fits his skill set. The athleticism he has in short areas is better than people think. I think it showed tonight in his ability to buy time and make plays downfield, which is critical to what we do. And then he throws an accurate ball, which is something he has always done."
Kessler's heroics were the most noteworthy aspect of a USC victory that seemed a bit more momentous than a season-opening rout of a Mountain West foe would normally be.
Fresno State returned 13 starters from an 11-win team and was eager to avenge its season-ending loss to the Trojans in the Las Vegas Bowl. USC also badly needed a convincing victory to start the Sarkisian era on a positive note and to provide a sweet finish to the sourest of weeks.
The buildup to Sarkisian's first game as USC coach began Monday with co-captain Josh Shaw's fabricated tale of how he sprained both his ankles jumping off a second-story balcony to save his nephew from drowning. Once it became clear Shaw was a liar and not a hero, Sarkisian faced three days of tough questions about how USC had vetted the senior corner's story and what his punishment would be for attempting to cover up the truth with a fairytale.
About the time the fallout from the Shaw saga appeared to be subsiding, another fire erupted for Sarkisian to put out. Ex-USC running back Anthony Brown said he quit the team the previous week because he couldn't play for a "racist" coach, a charge Sarkisian and many of his players vehemently denied.
Sarkisian said he only addressed those sagas twice with his team in the days leading up to Saturday's game. To a man, USC's players were adamant they didn't let those distractions affect them, noting that the three coaching changes they went through last season calloused them to off-the-field issues.
"This is USC. This is a special program," USC receiver Nelson Agholar said. "We don't worry about outside things. We really don't. It's all about performing, practicing hard and having fun. That's what we did. Whatever happened this week, that was out of our control."
The man who had the most to do with making sure those two scandals didn't derail USC was a quarterback Sarkisian wanted on his side long before he made his return to Troy.
Kessler was the quarterback prospect Sarkisian coveted most in the 2011 recruiting class, but the 6-foot-1 Bakersfield, Calif., native spurned the Washington coach in favor of USC after the Trojans finally offered him a scholarship. That proved fruitful in the long run for Sarkisian after he left Washington this past winter, accepted USC's head coaching job and inherited Kessler as his starting quarterback.
Though Kessler completed 65.4 percent of his passes in his first season as a starter last year, he appears to have made a big leap this offseason. He's more confident commanding the huddle, he is better at going through his reads to find the open receiver and he's more comfortable using his legs to escape pressure or make something out of nothing.
The fast-paced, no-huddle offense Sarkisian installed also appears to be a good fit for Kessler. He didn't throw any interceptions and completed 25 of 37 passes Saturday, from quick outs when Fresno State gave his receivers too much respect at the line of scrimmage, to deep balls when USC's receivers got behind the defense.
"I was impressed with the way [Kessler] utilized all his weapons out there," Agholar said. "He did a great job of that. Sometimes it doesn't work out with a lot of skilled guys because it's about feeding guys and making sure they're happy, but he did an amazing job of that.
What was especially encouraging for USC was how many young receivers made an impact Saturday. It was no surprise that veterans Agholar and George Farmer combined for eight catches, but sophomore Darreus Rogers had five catches for 60 yards, freshman Juju Smith had 4 for 123 and freshman Adoree Jackson had 3 for 36.
"Ever since the summer, these guys have come in wanting to learn," Kessler said. "They're asking questions and texting me to meet for film. We threw them in there and I knew that they were going to run the right route and not miss their assignments. I was excited for them, especially in their first game."
There wasn't much for Sarkisian to complain about with USC's performance but he did find one minor quibble. At the end of a Kessler scramble early in the second half, it pained Sarkisian to watch his quarterback fall awkwardly to the turf instead of going into a baseball slide.
Quipped Sarkisian when asked what he learned about his team Saturday night, "Our quarterback doesn't know how to slide."
Explained Kessler sheepishly, "It was my knee brace. I tripped."
Kessler shouldn't worry. On a night when his performance helped shift the focus away from USC's turbulent week and toward the Trojans' bright future, his coach will probably forgive him.
For more USC news, visit TrojanSports.com.
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