USC opener is a Sark easy one for new coach

USC opener is a Sark easy one for new coach
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian talks on the headset while assistants flash cards from the sideline during the game against Fresno State. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The swatch of cardinal flew down the sidelines, arms pumping, feet skipping, play card flapping.

In Saturday's brilliant homecoming parade, Steve Sarkisian was the prettiest of floats.

He hugged helmets, smacked shoulder pads, leaped into the thick air, crouched on the warm grass, fittingly rollicked along the Coliseum sidelines Saturday as if it were the backyard of his youth.

His USC players? They were the parade's high-stepping band, new and shiny, twirling and trilling, entertaining and, oh yeah, resounding in victory.

USC 52, Fresno State 13.... Sark-nado 3?

"It's great to be back, great to be home, great to be a Trojan, fight on," Sarkisian said afterward, bathed in sweat and hugs after the most lopsided Trojans coaching debut since Howard Jones beat Whittier, 74-0, in 1925.

The last few controversy-filled days were endless, but his debut was breathless. The questions were suffocating, but his answers were scintillating.

Sarkisian promised fast and, man, was that Trojans offense crazy fast and furiously effective, 702 total yards on a stunning Pac-12 record 105 plays.

Sarkisian promised tough, and, goodness, the Trojans defense was battering tough, creating four turnovers and holding the Bulldogs to 317 total yards.

Sarkisian also promised fun, and the entire evening was a blast, Trojans sprinting down sidelines, diving across the middle, flying into backfields and freshman tight end Bryce Dixon even leaping over an end zone barrier after catching a 22-yard touchdown pass.

"It's a new beginning for all of us," said freshman guard Viane Talamaivao.

Nobody partied harder than Sarkisian, whose sideline emotions peaked in the third quarter when he actually bumped chests with quarterback Cody Kessler, who perfectly fit the new offense with 394 yards passing, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.


"You better check our verts," Sarkisian said. "I might have been higher than Cody."

The players loved the emotion that has been missing from this program since Pete Carroll left town five years ago, even joking afterward about Sarkisian's young legs and endless energy.

They also loved the inclusion that led to eight different players carrying the ball and 10 different players catching the ball, and touchdowns by freshman Adoree Jackson and Dixon. It turns out, Sarkisian not only brought in a new offense, but unearthed a bunch of buried talent.

"Real recognizes real," said Talamaivao. "Players can tell which people are real, and Sark is real."

It was a game filled not only with a sense of renewal, but also relief, a party at the end of a week that felt like a wake.

The problems began Tuesday with the news that Sarkisian had been snookered by one of his captains and most trusted players.

Make no mistake, it was Sarkisian who bears the ultimate responsibility of USC believing and releasing Josh Shaw's story that he had injured his ankles jumping off a balcony in an attempt to save his 7-year-old nephew from drowning.

No sooner was Shaw suspended for the lie — the real story was that he jumped off an apartment balcony for reasons still unknown — then Sarkisian came under fire again when former Trojan Anthony Brown accused him of being a racist.

Those who have played for Sarkisian during his 15-year coaching career immediately exposed those accusations as absurd, but Sarkisian nonetheless bore the weight of their stress.

"I maybe brought it up to them twice all week," Sarkisian said of the distractions. "I wasn't going to let an external factor motivate us or not motivate us, it never will. We found out a lot about this team. We dealt with the week like professionals."

All of which led Sarkisian into the searing heat Saturday afternoon on sort of a homecoming mission, returning after a six-year absence to show fans the former offensive coordinator was the head coach who stalks the sidelines with his head up, his body language strong, his presence huge. Sure, he could have successfully followed Lane Kiffin by simply keeping air in the football, but still….

"Good to get a win, good to be home. I'm going to go to the band, guys, sorry," he said immediately, ending an on-field interview by running with his players over to the Coliseum corner to be serenaded by the Trojans marching band.

On the way, he jumped on the back of safety Su'a Cravens. Once there, he remained in the middle of the pack of players, pumping his arm with two fingers outstretched like everyone else, just another Trojan.

When the band finished, Sark walked over to a pack of Torrance neighbors and friends, hugging everyone as if they were meeting at a barbecue.

Then, finally, he met his family, hugging and posing for photos with his three children, kissing his wife, and then putting his arm around his 9-year-old son, Brady, and walking with the boy back to the locker room.

"Sark ... Sark ... Sark!" chanted fans.

Next week these new Trojans will face their first real test at Stanford, but Steve Sarkisian didn't seem to be thinking about that as he and Brady headed into the tunnel, heading for home.

Twitter: @billplaschke