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Offense clicks quickly for Trojans in 55-6 win over Arkansas State

Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry review USC's 55-6 season-opening victory over Arkansas State.

USC's season-opening victory over Arkansas State had a little bit of everything, not all of it entirely welcome for the Trojans.

The offense, in the play-calling hands of offensive coordinator Clay Helton, scored on multiple big plays, and quarterback Cody Kessler passed for four touchdowns.

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The defense played aggressively, blitzed often and forced turnovers.

And multiple new players made big contributions in the 55-6 victory on Saturday night at the Coliseum.

"All in all a good first win," Coach Steve Sarkisian said, adding "There's going to be plenty of room for improvement."

USC, ranked eighth in the Associated Press media poll and 10th in the coaches' poll, amassed 509 yards in the victory over the Red Wolves, a near four-touchdown underdog from the Sun Belt Conference.

It wasn't all good news for the Trojans.

Multipurpose standout Adoree' Jackson suffered an abdominal injury while returning a punt in the first quarter and did not return.

"I just know I felt something in my side when I was breaking away and it stopped me from running," Jackson said.

Trojans coaches had talked about expanding the starting cornerback's role in the offense, but he was sidelined after two offensive plays in which he didn't handle the football.

Jackson said he was fine but his availability for next week's game against Idaho, another Sun Belt opponent, is uncertain.

"We don't know much yet and we don't think it's serious," Sarkisian said.

The other area of concern is the offensive line. A unit that which features returning starters at every position gave up five sacks.

But for a first game, the Trojans did far more good than bad and took some of the heat off Sarkisian.

Two weeks ago, Sarkisian embarrassed himself and the university with his behavior at USC's annual "Salute to Troy" booster event on campus. Sarkisian said he had mixed alcohol and unspecified medication and has said he would seek treatment to see if he has a drinking problem.

But Saturday night, he ran off the field excited by a victory that the Trojans can build upon.

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"We moved on quite a bit ago as a family and so it wasn't like we had to come in here and turn the light switch on," Sarkisian said. "We've been preparing for this."

Kessler picked up where he left off last season, when he passed for 39 touchdowns, with only five interceptions.

Kessler completed 13 of 18 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He was replaced by Max Browne early in the fourth quarter and finished 19 of 26 for 238 yards.

Kessler connected for touchdowns with receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Steven Mitchell Jr., tight end Taylor McNamara and tailback Tre Madden. He distributed the ball to nine receivers.

Helton's play-calling was on the mark, Kessler said.

"We're over 500 yards, scored over 50 points with him calling plays," Kessler said. "I think it was successful night."

Madden, who sat out last season because of a foot injury, returned to his 2013 form, rushing for 106 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown.

The Trojans gave up almost 500 yards to Arkansas State, but they mostly kept dual-threat quarterback Fredi Knighten in check.

Safety Chris Hawkins and linebacker Su'a Cravens intercepted passes, Hawkins recovered a fumble and freshman linebacker Osa Masina scooped up a lateral and returned it for a touchdown.

Last February, USC welcomed its first full recruiting class since 2011. Coaches said through spring practice and training camp that more players would contribute this season, and they made good on those proclamations on Saturday night.

"It feels good to have guys that can go in at any time in the game," Hawkins said.

In the first half, 12 freshmen, junior college transfers Isaac Whitney and De'Quan Hampton and McNamara, a graduate transfer who played three seasons at Oklahoma, helped the Trojans forge a 28-0 halftime lead.

On the fourth play from scrimmage, Smith-Schuster cut across the middle from right to left and caught a pass from Kessler. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Smith-Schuster outmuscled and outran Red Wolves defenders to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown.

Mitchell scored on a 14-yard touchdown pass play on the final play of the first quarter to increase the lead to 14-0.

Madden broke off a career-long 65-yard touchdown run in the second quarter before the Trojans put together an eight-play drive that culminated with Kessler's short touchdown pass to McNamara.

Arkansas State scored early in the third quarter on a touchdown run by Michael Gordon before the Trojans extended their lead on Madden's touchdown reception, freshman Ronald Jones' touchdown run and Masina's touchdown return.

Freshman running back Aca'Cedric Ware added a six-yard run in the fourth quarter to cap the scoring.

Twitter: @latimesklein

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