Six games into the season, USC is feeling confident but still searching for an identity.
Part of that equation, Coach Steve Sarkisian indicated in the aftermath of the Trojans’ victory over Arizona, involves quarterback Cody Kessler throwing longer passes.
USC, which lost at Boston College and rebounded from last week’s last-second defeat by Arizona State, is 4-2 overall, 3-1 in the Pac-12 Conference. The Trojans on Sunday reentered the Associated Press media poll at No. 22.
“We’re a Hail Mary away from being probably a top-five team in the country right now,” Sarkisian said Sunday night during a teleconference with reporters. “And we didn’t defend a veer-option play very good in Week 3.
“Outside of that, we’ve played good football.”
Sarkisian, though, wants more “explosive” offensive plays, which he quantifies as runs 10 yards or longer and passes 15 yards or longer.
Kessler completed 20 of 30 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, with an intercepted pass, in the Trojans’ 28-26 victory Saturday night at Arizona Stadium. His longest completion was for 25 yards.
“We tried more to throw the ball down the field — it wasn’t exactly where we want it to be yet,” Sarkisian said. “We’ll continue to try that because I think when we do that it makes us more effective.”
Kessler has completed 69% of his passes, 11 for touchdowns.
Sarkisian said Kessler has done well managing games and throwing to open receivers “underneath” coverage.
“You can’t fault a guy for that, going through his progressions,” Sarkisian said.
But there have been other times, Sarkisian said, when “we have not gotten through the progression as well as I would have liked.”
And when the primary receiver is open on a longer route, Sarkisian wants Kessler to pull the trigger.
“When we’re calling the deep ball,” Sarkisian said, “I’d like Cody to let it rip.”
USC begins preparations Tuesday for its game Saturday against Colorado. Improving the deep passing game will be part of the practice plan.
“He’s an unbelievably competitive kid,” Sarkisian said of Kessler, adding, “He wants to play great.
“It’s just that in the heat of the moment we all want everybody to perform at their maximum level. And we think Cody can do that and we just have to keep pushing to make that happen.”
Kessler had a pass intercepted for the first time this season after 190 attempts.
After the game, he laughed and said teammates seemed to take it harder.
“Everyone was tapping me like it was the end of the world,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Guys, I’ve thrown millions of interceptions in my life. I’m fine.’
“They thought I was going to be crushed.”
Starting cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour were taken out of the Arizona game because of a hip-flexor injury and illness, respectively. Their availability for Saturday’s game will be monitored this week.
Freshmen safety John Plattenburg and cornerback Jonathan Lockett played extensively for the first time against Arizona.
“All the veteran guys were pumping me up, telling me what they do and stuff like that,” said Lockett, who made three tackles.
Sarkisian said both freshmen played well.
“We’re going to need those guys — we’re going to need that depth,” he said.
Kicker Alex Wood, playing in place of injured Andre Heidari, made four extra points and three of his five kickoffs were touchbacks. “Alex Wood was awesome,” Sarkisian said. “What an unbelievable job of kicking the ball deep and kicking it exactly where it needs to go.”