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Column: No. 8 USC’s easy win also eases Trojans’ breathing and Pac-12’s burden

Chris Dufresne and Lindsey Thiry discuss USC’s ability to move past training camp drama to defeat Arkansas State 55-6 in the season opener.

You could not blame USC for wanting to flip the calendar from August to September.

“We were counting down the days,” sophomore safety John Plattenburg said.

Even when game-day did arrive Saturday, the Pac-12 Conference and its TV network made the No. 8-ranked Trojans wait all day for an 8 p.m. kickoff.

“It felt like forever,” Plattenburg said.

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There was nothing like playing, though, to change a narrative of embarrassment and negativity.

USC would have picked Arkansas State up at the airport in a limo. It wasn’t only the 55-6 final score that felt so good, either. It was the collective exhale, knocking of shoulder pads and stretching of legs.

“It’s good to win and actually worry just about football,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said.

These haven’t been pleasant days for USC, Coach Steve Sarkisian, Athletic Director Pat Haden or the extended Trojan Family.

Baylor and Florida State, embroiled in different and deeper states of duress, blew off steam this weekend by the combined score of 115-37 against Southern Methodist and Texas State, respectively.

Saturday night was USC’s turn.

Things turned black in August when Sarkisian got up to say a few words at the team’s end-of-camp “Salute to Troy” pep rally.

Except, the words didn’t come out right because Sarkisian had mixed alcohol and medication, he said, with disastrous results.

Haden was already under fire by some for daring to hire Sarkisian in the first place. Now, he was being questioned for his vetting of Sarkisian, a member of Pete Carroll’s USC staff before spending five years as head coach at Washington.

So yeah, it was good timing that Arkansas State showed up when it did.

USC didn’t prove much with Saturday’s win, but it also did not disprove anything.

Quarterback Cody Kessler, one of the most accurate passers in USC history, lacked his usual pinpoint sharpness. Twice in the first half, he overthrew wide-open receiver Steven Mitchell Jr.

He was also sacked five times in the first half, leading to a personal, in-game apology from center Max Tuerk.

Fans were held mildly captivated by a variety of dazzling plays and also saw 22 players make their debut — 13 of them first-year freshmen.

And, what discipline, as the Trojans committed only three penalties.

USC had a nifty 14-second drive when running back Tre Madden raced 65 yards for a touchdown on a first-down play and also got an interception from defensive star Cravens that led to another score.

Clay Helton took over play calling for Sarkisian and seven different Trojans scored touchdowns.

Sarkisian looked poised and comfortable back in the sanctuary of the sideline.

“It was easy, I loved it,” he said afterward."This is what I love to do.”

This was also a first win over the Red Wolves; next year USC opens against the Crimson Tide of Alabama.

The biggest scare of the night came when two-way star Adoree’ Jackson crumpled to the ground near the USC bench after returning a punt.

Jackson’s injury (abdominal strain) was pronounced not serious, but other teams were not so lucky:

•Notre Dame trashed Texas but lost starting running back Tarean Folston to a season-ending knee injury.

•Brigham Young shocked Nebraska on a last-second Hail Mary but lost quarterback Taysom Hill (again) for the season.

•Clemson star receiver Mike Williams suffered a small neck fracture running into the goal post after scoring a touchdown. He’s expected to recover fully, but maybe not in time to help lead the Tigers to the ACC title.

•Arizona survived a wobbly win against Texas San Antonio but appears to have lost All-America linebacker Scooby Wright (knee) for an extended time.

•Penn State took a double whammy, losing to Temple, for the first time in 74 years, and linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White for the year.

•Oregon’s playoff hopes were put in a holding pattern after quarterback Vernon Adams, in his Ducks debut, took a cheap shot from a former Eastern Washington teammate. Adams appeared to be OK, and he’ll have to be for Oregon to win next week at Michigan State.

USC may have dodged an orthopedic surgeon with Jackson and can easily afford to rest him against Idaho next week in advance of the Pac-12 opener against Stanford.

The Trojans did nothing to damage their top-10 ranking — and maybe enhanced their standing in the Pac-12, which had a lousy opening weekend.

Washington lost at Boise State, Washington lost to lower-division Portland State, Stanford lost at Northwestern and Arizona State lost to Texas A&M in the only Pac-12-vs.-SEC West game scheduled this season.

USC needed to score 55 to hold its crosstown own after UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen’s breakout performance against Virginia at the Rose Bowl.

Of course USC players were watching — how else where they going to kill time?

“Oh man,” Plattenburg said before quickly getting back on script with “we play faceless opponents.”

UCLA, USC and Oregon (offense only) were the only three Pac-12 unit pieces that lived up to their hype.

The Trojans’ prospects of opening 4-0, once daunting, now appear 50-50 based on what we’ve seen from Stanford and Arizona State.

USC hosts Stanford in two weeks before taking on Arizona State in Tempe, two hugely important games in the tag-team tenures of Haden and Sarkisian.

A crowd of 79,809 exited early, happily and in orderly fashion out of the Coliseum.

It’s way too soon, however, to venture a bet on sustainability.

Happiness, in modern college football times, is always listed as “day-to-day.”

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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