After an embarrassing defeat that saw USC’s two quarterbacks combine for the fewest single-game passing yards since 1998, USC head coach Lane Kiffin announced via YouTube Monday that redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler will be the team’s starter moving forward.
Though fans were frustrated with Kiffin’s inability to name a definitive starter at the beginning of the season, he defended his choice by explaining that he was confident enough in the abilities of both Kessler and redshirt sophomore Max Wittek to give them time on the field. But after a 10-7 loss to Washington State in which both players were ineffective and made costly turnovers, Kiffin described the passing game as “totally inept.”
Now, fans might be relieved to finally have a permanent starting quarterback, but many are equally annoyed with Kiffin’s refusal to answer why he chose Kessler over Wittek.
“I’m not going to get into [why Kessler was chosen] for protection of the guys,” Kiffin said. “We made a decision to go with Cody, and we’re excited about how well he’s gonna play Saturday.”
Perhaps Kessler’s edge in statistics can help explain Kiffin’s decision. Kessler started against Hawai’i and Washington State and completed 18 of 32 passes (56.25 percent) for 136 yards, with one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown and two interceptions. Wittek came in during the second half in both games, completing a total of 8 out of 18 passes (44.44 percent) for 90 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Against Washington State, Kiffin’s conservative playcalling on offense indicated a lack of trust in both quarterbacks — Kessler threw mostly short screen passes, many of which were officially counted as rushing yards because they went backwards, and Wittek frequently handed the ball off to redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden, who finished with 151 yards on 32 carries.
Now that Kessler has been tabbed as the starter going forward, Kiffin plans to structure his gameplan around the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from Bakersfield, Calif.
“We’re going with Cody Kessler as our quarterback so we need to make sure that we’re doing things that he’s done really well,” Kiffin said.
Coming off of last season, Wittek might have been favored to start, as he started against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech after senior quarterback Matt Barkley sustained a shoulder injury. During camp, however, Kessler was praised for his smart decision-making and improvement in arm strength, and was considered the frontrunner for the starting position.
When Wittek was asked during fall camp if he would transfer if not named the starter, he dodged the question, while Kessler clearly indicated that he would stay if he lost the battle. After officially naming Kessler the starter Monday afternoon, Kiffin acknowledged Wittek’s displeasure with the decision.
“We don’t expect him to agree with us,” Kiffin said. “He’s very competitive, like all the guys we recruit. They all should think that they should be the starter.”
Now that Kessler has been named the starter and Wittek the backup, Kiffin intends to redshirt Max Browne, the true freshman quarterback from Sammamish, Wash.
Though the loss to Washington State seemed like a disaster on all fronts, USC’s defense, led by first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, only allowed three points, as the other seven for the Cougars came from an interception thrown by Kessler that was returned for a touchdown.
“We played lights-out defense,” Kiffin said. “When we get the passing game fixed, we’ll win a lot of games with that.”
After two games, USC’s defense leads the country with 11 sacks, three of which have come from redshirt junior defensive tackle George Uko, which puts him tied for second in the nation. The Trojans also lead the nation in rushing yards allowed after giving up a total of just 30 rushing yards in two games.
The return of senior outside linebacker Morgan Breslin, who made his season debut after missing the first game due to injury, adds even more excitement to the defense. The preseason All-American registered two sacks against Washington State and will look to contribute even more as he returns to full health.
Though Breslin came back from injury this week, senior tailback Silas Redd has yet to play this season, as he is still recovering from knee surgery he had last spring. Earlier this month, Redd visited renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, who has garnered attention for his rehabilitation work with Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III. Once back, Redd will contribute alongside Madden and freshman running back Justin Davis in what appears to be a much-improved running game for USC.
Other notable injuries include redshirt junior cornerback Anthony Brown, who was injured in the season opener at Hawai’i and missed the Washington State game, and cornerback Kevon Seymour, who played against the Cougars but was not completely healthy.
Follow Aubrey on Twitter @aubreykragen