Sports

Saturday, Sep 14 2013 09:06 PM

Kessler throws for 237 yards, 2 TDs to lead USC to 35-7 win over Eagles

BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer zewing@bakersfield.com

LOS ANGELES -- Cody Kessler got the superstar treatment after USC's 35-7 victory over Boston College on Saturday at the L.A. Coliseum: The postgame TV interview, the wild cheering from the student section, the media who mobbed him at midfield.

It was, quite easily, Kessler's best moment since he left Centennial High three years ago to play quarterback for USC. He had completed 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns and led the Trojans (2-1) to a desperately needed win.

"It was awesome," Kessler said. "I had confidence, and it was great."

Afterwards, Kessler acknowledged all of that was the result of a weeklong process that started with perhaps Kessler's lowest moment here: Sitting in the Coliseum locker room after last week's 10-7 loss to Washington State, a bitter defeat full of ultra-conservative play-calling and sub-par play from both Kessler and Max Wittek, another sophomore quarterback who has been battling Kessler for the starting job.

All of the other Trojans had left. Kessler sat, sat some more and stewed with head coach Lane Kiffin and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton.

"It was just disappointment, just being upset," Kessler said. "Me and Kiff and coach Helton. We said, 'We really need to turn this around. Let's show them what we're capable of.' And I think today we did that."

The next day, Kiffin -- indecisive since the spring about whether Kessler or Wittek would start -- told Kessler the job was his. The day after that, Kessler opened practice with an 80-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor that set the tone for the week.

"The first two weeks -- I'm not making excuses at all for the first two weeks -- but you really can't take control and step up and be that guy and lead the whole time when you're sharing reps," Kessler said. "But coach told me this week, 'Let's roll, we trust in you and let's get this going. That gave me the whole week to get prepared like I know I can."

Kessler tried to reprise the practice bomb with a deep pass on the first play from scrimmage Saturday, but his deep ball to Marqise Lee was barely too long for the diving receiver. The crowd of 62,006 cheered wildly anyway, a week after repeatedly booing Kiffin's conservative play-calling.

After that miss, Kessler completed his next 14 passes, including a 5-yard touchdown pass to running back Tre Madden and an 80-yard catch-and-run to Lee for another TD. On that play, Kessler lost his footing as he stepped back from the center before regaining his balance and finding Lee open about 15 yards downfield. Lee made a cut to the sideline and sprinted the rest of the way, with Kiffin running a few yards behind him most of the way.

That gave the Trojans a 14-0 lead that lasted until the second half, when USC's defense and running game finished the job. Boston College (2-1) crossed midfield three times all day and didn't score until the Trojans led 28-0 and had removed their first-string defense.

Kessler and Wittek -- who entered with about 10 minutes remaining and USC ahead 28-7 -- combined to throw seven passes for 90 yards in the second half, but Kessler led touchdown drives finished on the ground by Madden and Justin Davis, and Wittek ran for a late score, too.

"We ran the ball a lot today -- 43 rushing attempts and we only threw the ball 19 times; we just happened to complete some," Kiffin said. "The story today is the passing game and the big plays and stuff, but really, 19 pass attempts. We just happened to complete 17 of them."

Just as the passing game benefitted from USC's ability to rush, the opposite is also true.

"It's always good when you're balanced," running backs coach Tommie Robinson said. "Our quarterback came in and played a really good game."

Madden, who ran for 102 yards and became the first Trojans running back since Marcus Allen in 1981 to surpass 100 in the first three games of the season, said Kessler's big game helped everything.

"Cody came out and had a great week of practice, and you could just see in his eyes the energy he brought to the offense," Madden said. "That's how football goes. Sometimes things don't go your way, but we bounced back."

No one more than Kessler. After struggling in a road victory at Hawaii and in last week's disaster against Washington State, he woke up Saturday knowing that the game was his.

"It was just a whole different mindset," Kessler said. "Just getting the opportunity, knowing that you're the guy, it gives you that confidence you need. I felt like today I had no pressure on me. I could play like I could and not worry about whether coach Kiffin was going to take me out."

Now Kessler hopes it's just the beginning. USC plays Utah State at home next week and then steps back into a challenging Pac-12 Conference schedule with a road game at Arizona State. But one concern the Trojans don't have anymore is who will start behind center.

"It feels like it's just beginning," Kessler said. "There's still some things I missed that I have to go back and look at. But I think today is definitely the start for a lot of good things to come."

Notes

Stockdale graduate Andre Heidari was 5 for 5 on extra-point attempts and hit two touchbacks on five kickoffs. He did not attempt a field goal after missing both of his attempts last week. ... Bakersfield graduate Craig McMahon, Heidari's backup, saw his first action of the season, kicking off after USC's last touchdown. ... Liberty product Cody Temple played his first official snap as a Trojan. Temple, a 300-pound defensive tackle, participated in the fourth quarter and did not record any statistics.

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