Kessler outduels Mannion in 35-10 USC win

It was USC’s redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler, not highly touted Oregon State gunslinger Sean Mannion, who looked like the future NFL star during the Trojans’ 35-10 win over the visiting Beavers on Saturday night.

No. 18 USC (3-1, 2-0 Pac-12) overcame some early jitters to dominate large stretches of the game, while Oregon State (3-1, 0-1) never seemed to be able to get its vaunted passing attack off the ground. The Trojans’ much maligned secondary held Mannion to only 15 completions and 123 yards, while Kessler picked apart the Beavers’ defense for 261 yards and two touchdowns. Though the win was by no means perfect — the two teams combined for a ridiculous 232 yards of total penalties  — USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was pleased with the result.

“I’m proud of our football team,” Sarkisian said. “We have room for improvement, we need to play better next week. But it’s great to be 2-0 in conference play.”

Sophomore safety Su’a Cravens foreshadowed a monster performance midway through the first quarter, intercepting a Mannion screen pass and returning it 31 yards to open the scoring. The Los Angeles native would go on to add six total tackles, a sack and another tackle for loss. The pick six marked Cravens’ first career touchdown.

“Credit to the coaches,” Cravens said. “We called a zone, we knew they wanted to get it out to the flats with their big tight ends. They ran them out and I just happened to make a play on the ball.”

Just as quickly as it arrived, however, the Trojans’ early lead vanished when OSU’s Ryan Murphy took the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. Murphy, who starts at safety for the Beavers, sidestepped USC sophomore defensive back Leon McQuay III while tiptoeing down the sideline for the score.

Mannion began to show off his NFL-ready arm in the second quarter, leading the Beavers on an 11-play, 72-yard drive that culminated in a field goal. The senior quarterback’s favorite target on the drive was wideout Richard Mullaney, who caught passes of 29 and 27 yards. The drive marked Mannion’s only sustained success all game, a point of pride for Sarkisian and the USC defense.

“Being disciplined was a point of emphasis for us,” Sarkisian said. “All in all I think for the entire game our discipline was very good. We were in the right places at the right times, I think we had bodies on their receivers and the windows were tight. We might have been a little over aggressive, but we did enough to make [Mannion] uncomfortable in the pocket.”

USC would respond on its very next series, converting two crucial third downs in Beaver territory to set up a 16-yard touchdown strike from Kessler to sophomore tailback Justin Davis. Davis collected 112 all-purpose yards and two total touchdowns on the night.

The Beavers’ final drive of the first half looked destined for points, until freshman Adoree’ Jackson tipped a Mannion pass into McQuay’s waiting hands in the corner of the endzone. The Beavers had moved into USC territory with the help of multiple key penalties, including a 15-yard facemask call on senior linebacker Hayes Pullard.

McQuay’s brilliance set up a wild ending to the first half. Facing 4th and 15 from Oregon State’s 48-yard line on the following drive, Kessler ran the game clock down to 0:01 before connecting with sophomore wideout Darreus Rogers for a Hail Mary-style touchdown. Senior kicker Andre Heidari’s extra point improbably made the halftime score 21-10 in favor of USC.

Kessler explained his mindset going into the play.

“I knew exactly what [Rogers] was thinking,” Kessler said. “We practice it two or three times a week, in case we get in those scenarios. Darreus made an amazing play. I really think that sparked us for the second half. It was a really big play that got the crowd pumped up too.”

Oregon State blocked a Heidari field goal attempt late in a third quarter that featured no points and a combined 20 penalties. The fireworks returned just 30 seconds into the final quarter, however, in the form of 17-yard run from redshirt junior tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen. The scoring play was immediately preceded by a clutch third and long conversion from Kessler, who found Agholor for a 15-yard gain while in the grasp of an OSU defender.

Davis added his second score of the day on a 21-yard run midway through the quarter, capping the 25-point win. Redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne led the Trojans’ onto the field for the team’s final, clock-killing drive.

The Trojans will be back at the Coliseum next Saturday, facing off against No. 15 Arizona State. The Sun Devils are currently without starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, and suffered a 62-17 beatdown at the hands of No. 11 UCLA on Thursday. Still, Sarkisian knows the team will have to improve in several key areas in the next seven days.

“We’ll take it,” Sarkisian said. “We love the fact that we won. We love the fact that we’re 2-0 [in Pac-12 play]. But we can be better.”