You know that open quarterback competition many USC fans were looking forward to this coming spring? Forget about it.
Cody Kessler is the man.
The Trojans’ exuberant redshirt sophomore took control of the position and squeezed it like a pair of hot Las Vegas dice on Saturday. Yes, true freshman Max Browne is a kid with considerable potential, but Kessler put his own cardinal and gold stamp on the position and deserves to be the clear No. 1 quarterback heading into 2014 after playing the finest game of his young career in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
It wasn’t just that Kessler completed 22 of 30 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns in the runaway 45-20 victory and was named the game MVP. It was also the way he did it. He whistled his first 10-yard scoring pass to Marqise Lee between two Fresno State defenders, then, with Fresno’s Kyrie Wilson bearing down on his facemask, he found Nelson Agholor with a beautifully thrown 40 yard TD spiral.
Maybe more importantly, Kessler was in total control of this game. He exuded leadership, even after his only mistake in an otherwise flawless performance, an overthrown pass that was intercepted and run back for a touchdown. Unflustered when that score closed the gap to 38-20 with the Bulldogs gaining a sniff of momentum, Kessler coolly led the Trojans downfield for the Javorius Allen TD run that put the game away.
This was the quarterback many of us watched in the spring, the one we thought had clearly won the job over a stronger-armed but less consistent Max Wittek. Everyone seemed to think that except Lane Kiffin, who grudgingly finally named Kessler the starter but a) said the position wasn’t settled yet and b) showed little confidence in his choice by refusing to allow Kessler to throw the ball down field in the first couple of games.
In many ways, Saturday was a referendum for not only Kessler but for Agholor and Allen, as well. These were the three players Kiffin never fully seemed to embrace, three talented kids who, had he allowed them a chance, just might have saved his job.
Agholor’s ability was obvious last year, both in practice and in his limited opportunities. But Kiffin barely used him, insisting on throwing 80 to 90 percent of the time to Lee, who undeniably had a great season but spent much of the latter part of it double- and triple-teamed.
Allen, the redshirt sophomore who has been the team’s happiest surprise, was even more overlooked. Despite having a terrific spring, Kiffin had buried him on the depth chart. When Ed Orgeron took over after Kiffin was fired five games in, he took the advice of running backs coach Tommie Robinson and immediately put Allen in the rotation. All he did was rush for 799 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season and get voted team MVP.
The exclamation point for all three came in Vegas, with Kessler’s four TD passes and Agholor and Allen scoring two touchdowns apiece.
If you were happy for them, you also had to feel good for Lee, who made most likely his last game as a Trojan a memorable one. The ever-smiling junior and likely NFL first-round draft pick might well be the finest wide receiver in the glorious history of the school. He made a strong case by shaking off a season full of injuries to return to the old Marqise against Fresno, catching seven seven passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
It was one of those USC days when there were more than enough warm, cuddly feelings to go around.
Clay Helton made the most of his one-game head coaching audition by keeping the kids motivated, no easy task considering what they had been through. All you had to do was watch them on the sidelines, hopping and jumping and clearly into it from the start.
They wanted this one. They wanted it for Orgeron, the interim coach they obviously loved and then suffered with when he left. They wanted it for Helton. And they wanted it for themselves, for their own pride and perseverance.
They gave incoming head coach Steve Sarkisian even more reason to look forward to spring practice, assuming, of course, he doesn’t suffer some repercussions from the Tosh Lupoi fallout.
Either way, Sarkisian now will have plenty on his mind. There is one thing he shouldn’t have to think about, though.
The name of his 2014 starting quarterback.