Kessler, freshmen shine in season opener

The Trojans ushered in the Steve Sarkisian era on Saturday afternoon following a chaotic week in Troy. USC’s 15th-ranked football team silenced all the whispers about senior cornerback Josh Shaw’s suspension and senior running back Anthony Brown’s departure by charging to a 52-13 victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs.

Breakout performance · Freshman wide receiver-safety John “JuJu” Smith eclipsed 100 receiving yards in just the first half of the game against Fresno State. The Long Beach Poly product finished with 123 yards. - Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

Breakout performance · Freshman wide receiver-safety John “JuJu” Smith eclipsed 100 receiving yards in just the first half of the game against Fresno State. The Long Beach Poly product finished with 123 yards. – Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

The events of the past week proved to be no distraction to the Trojans on the field, who put up their highest yard total (701) since 2005 in Sarkisian’s first game as USC’s head coach. The Trojans achieved those 701 yards on 105 total plays, which broke the previous Pac-12 record.

The Trojans looked a bit shaky out of the gates, as true freshman wide receiver JuJu Smith committed a holding penalty on the opening kickoff and redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler nearly threw a pick-six to Fresno State safety Derron Smith on the first play from scrimmage. But from then on, Kessler and Smith were two of USC’s most dynamic players.

Kessler proved to have mastered Sarkisian’s new up-tempo offense, putting up a career-high 394 yards and tying career-highs with 37 attempts, 25 completions and four touchdown passes. The Bakersfield, California native got the Trojans’ scoring storm started with a one-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the game.

Though Kessler’s aerial abilities might have surprised some USC fans, Sarkisian insisted that Kessler has always had it in him.

“The way [Kessler] throws and his athleticism in short areas is better than a lot of people,” Sarkisian said. “He has the ability to buy time and make plays down the field and throw an excellent ball.”

Kessler looked in sync with all of his targets, old and new. He spread the ball out between nine different receivers, including true freshman tight end Bryce Dixon and true freshmen wide receivers Smith and Adoree’ Jackson.

Sarkisian lauded the abilities of the group of freshmen.

“I’m not surprised, quite honestly, that they were able to go in and play,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve challenged them every single day and thrown them in with the ones, whether it’s JuJu or Adoree’ or Bryce Dixon or the young O-linemen that were in there, all those guys stepped in and played well.”

Freshman Ajene Harris was slated to start at wide receiver, but Smith started in his place, and it made a huge difference for the Trojans. Smith, who also wreaked havoc on the defensive side of the ball, eclipsed 100 receiving yards early in the second quarter. Smith achieved that mark on just his fourth reception of the game, a 43-yard catch-and-run, and finished the game with 123 yards.

Junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor looked capable of filling former All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee’s shoes as the Trojans’ No. 1 wideout at times, but dropped a few easy catches as well. In addition to hauling in two touchdowns, Agholor had a circus catch that bounced off his helmet and into his hands in the second quarter.

After a high-scoring first quarter for USC, the train came off the tracks a bit in the second. Sophomore running back Justin Davis lost a fumble on Fresno State’s 42-yard line, but Fresno State quarterback Brandon Connette returned the favor by throwing an interception to senior safety Gerald Bowman. The Trojans handed the ball right back over, though, when redshirt junior running back Javorius “Buck” Allen fumbled again.

Like Bowman, junior defensive end Leonard Williams also hauled in the second interception of his career on Saturday.

“It felt pretty, wild to be honest,” Williams said. “I got one freshman year and even that one felt like it was good luck or something. I never thought I’d get another one. It felt crazy, it just happened so fast.”

While Kessler and the Trojan defense flexed their muscles Saturday evening, the Fresno State signal callers struggled all game.

Fresno State entered the game with no clear frontrunner at quarterback. Head coach Tim DeRuyter started Brian Burrell, but after he went 3-for-6 with only 14 yards in a little over a quarter of action, DeRuyter replaced Burrell with Connette, who transferred this spring from Duke. The two alternated throughout the game and finished with a combined 150 yards.

Though the Bulldogs struggled on offense in the first half, they came out strong to start off the second. The Trojan defense looked sluggish, letting up a bit after the offense had built up a 31-7 lead at the half.

The Bulldogs marched down the field and running back Marteze Waller punched in his second of two rushing touchdowns on the day. After a failed extra point by Fresno State kicker Colin McGuire, the score sat at 31-13.

The Trojan offense responded, though, reeling off two straight touchdowns after that to increase their lead to 45-13. Allen, the 2013 team MVP, busted through Fresno State’s defense for a nine-yard touchdown before Kessler connected with Dixon for the Oxnard, California native’s first receiving touchdown as a Trojan.

Kessler and the crop of freshmen stole the show, but there’s much to be said about USC’s defense as well — the Trojans held the Bulldogs to 317 total yards of offense, most of which came in the second half.

With such a big lead in the second half, Sarkisian allowed redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne to get his first reps as a Trojan. Browne looked like a capable future leader, going 3-for-4 for 30 yards.

Despite the record-setting performance and the impressive debuts of so many freshmen, Sarkisian immediately brought attention to the game on the horizon. The Trojans must now prepare to head north to Palo Alto, California to begin Pac-12 play against Stanford, who has been a thorn in USC’s side for years.

“We’ll enjoy it for a moment,” Sarkisian said. “We gotta get back to work.”