The No. 8-ranked Trojans didn’t appear to be in midseason form quite yet but, nonetheless, took care of business against Arkansas State Saturday night with a 55-6 rout of the Red Wolves at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Led by an attack well balanced between its running game and the arm of Heisman Trophy candidate and redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler, the Trojans (1-0) racked up 509 total yards of offense.
“All in all, it was a good first win,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “There are areas for improvement, but for the first time taking the field, I was pleased with the effort. They played hard and played together as a team.”
The USC defense also didn’t appear to miss a beat, containing Arkansas State (0-1) quarterback Fredi Knighten for most of the night, while forcing four turnovers.
The star of the night on defense was redshirt sophomore Chris Hawkins, who in his first game after making the transition from cornerback to strong safety, came up with two turnovers — one interception and one fumble recovery — after redshirt junior linebacker Jabari Ruffin stripped the ball.
“As a defense, we wanted to really take away the quarterback,” Hawkins said. “Being able to depend on my teammates and knowing where they’re supposed to be, it’s an amazing feeling.”
Freshman linebacker Osa Masina also recovered a fumble on a backwards pass and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Redshirt senior tailback Tre Madden, who was sidelined for the majority of the past two seasons with injuries, showcased his talents in his first game back in a USC uniform, piling up 106 rushing yards on 12 carries to go along with a pair of touchdowns.
“I feel like I did pretty good,” Madden said.
Madden broke out for a 65-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career, in the first quarter with his other score coming on an eight-yard sling from Kessler. It was the first time Madden got in the end zone since Sept. 28, 2013.
The USC running attack compiled 189 total yards, with Madden securing his fifth career 100-yard rushing game.
Madden also had help from some younger players. Freshmen Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware each scored the first touchdowns of their USC careers. Jones’s came on a 44-yard in the third quarter, while Ware ran one in from six yards late in the game.
The game featured a lot of young and new talent, as 23 players, including 13 true freshman, made their USC debuts on Saturday night.
“The only way in this game that you really get better is by playing,” Sarkisian said.
In the passing game, Kessler seemed to pick up right where he left off last season in the stat sheet, completing over 70 percent of his passes on his way to putting up 236 yards and four touchdowns in just three quarters of play.
On just the fourth play of the game, Kessler found sophomore wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster for a 61-yard touchdown — the longest scoring reception of Smith-Schuster’s career.
Kessler was able to share the love, as 11 different USC receivers had at least one reception over the course of the game. He carried the team to a comfortable lead before handing off the reigns to redshirt sophomore Max Browne in the fourth quarter.
While there were a few down-the-field passes that Kessler might have wanted back, he might have needed better protection from his offensive line, who struggled to protect him after giving up five sacks in the first half.
“We had a couple blown assignments and have up some sacks,” Sarkisian said. “There was a combination of things, but it will be a point of emphasis when we go back.”
In his first game calling plays, offensive coordinator Clay Helton’s unit also struggled on third down, converting only three of 10 times. The offense’s 55 points, though, is the team’s most in a season opener since 2009.
Though the Red Wolves only scored once, on a rushing touchdown by senior tailback Michael Gordon, Sarkisian didn’t discredit their effort.
“This was a good football team, they will win a lot of games and probably go to a bowl again,” Sarkisian said.
The Trojans got an injury scare in the first half when sophomore Adoree’ Jackson pulled up short on a kick return and would not return in the second half after suffering an abdominal strain.
Jackson feels confident that he will be good to go next week, saying after the game that he will certainly play against Idaho.
USC continued its success in starting the season off on the right note. The team’s win Saturday night marked the Trojans’ 18th consecutive season-opening win, and after a tough couple of weeks, Sarkisian was glad to finally get back onto the playing field.
“It was easy, this [coaching] is what I love to do,” Sarkisian said. “I am proud of the guys.”
After a couple of days off, the Trojans will then get back to work on the practice field as they prepare to host another Sun Belt opponent, Idaho, next Saturday.