USC’s new no-huddle offense moved up and down the field with speed and efficiency, veterans and talented freshmen adding spectacular accents.
The Trojans’ new defense was mostly stout and created opportunities.
On Saturday at the Coliseum, the No. 15 Trojans looked nothing like an unfocused team after enduring a week of bizarre and inflammatory distractions.
Instead, they gave new Coach Steve Sarkisian his first victory, a 52-13 rout of Fresno State.
“That was fun,” Sarkisian said. “Gosh.”
Quarterback Cody Kessler passed for four touchdowns as the Trojans’ no-huddle offense rolled up 701 yards in 105 plays, a Pac-12 Conference record.
Junior Nelson Agholor caught two touchdown passes and freshman receiver Adoree’ Jackson and freshman tight end Bryce Dixon each caught one while freshman JuJu Smith amassed 123 yards in receptions as new players contributed in all three phases.
It should get decidedly more difficult next Saturday when the Trojans travel to Stanford for their Pac-12 opener.
But for a night anyway, the Trojans can bask in the glow of an impressive start.
“The best part,” said Kessler, who passed for a career-best 394 yards, “was that it felt like we’ve been playing with Sark for years.
“It didn’t feel like a new era.”
Kessler torched Fresno State for a Las Vegas Bowl-record four touchdowns last December, but that was under an entirely different set of circumstances.
Sarkisian, hired earlier that month, had watched that game from the press box and the sideline, itching for his chance to coach the Trojans.
Preparations appeared interrupted this week after cornerback Josh Shaw’s tale of sustaining ankle injuries while saving a potentially drowning nephew last Saturday came crashing down, putting NCAA sanctions-free USC back in the national limelight for another off-the-field controversy. Shaw was suspended indefinitely after his admission to school officials that the story was fabricated, and a police investigation into his involvement in an incident last Saturday at a downtown apartment complex that night continues.
A day after Shaw’s admission, a post to former player Anthony Brown’s Instagram account accused Sarkisian of racism, a charge denounced by several current and former Trojans players.
But the Trojans did not appear distracted Saturday.
“I maybe brought it up to them twice all week,” Sarkisian said.
Kessler rushed for a touchdown and passed for three more as USC rolled to a 31-7 halftime lead.
Fresno State scored to start the second half. But for the second time in eight months the Bulldogs were no match for the Trojans.
Sarkisian had hoped that the high-speed attack he brought with him from Washington would allow the Trojans to push the pace and run more plays.
USC started the game with a 90-yard, 17-play drive that featured seven players touching the ball.
Unlike predecessor Lane Kiffin, who often seemed fixated on a laminated, menu-sized play-call sheet, Sarkisian moved freely about the sideline, sometimes taking a crouching position 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The offense was not perfect — tailbacks Justin Davis and Javorius Allen lost first-half fumbles — but the performance had to give Stanford and the rest of the conference something to think about, especially with so many freshmen seemingly unfazed by the college stage.
It was also the debut of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 scheme.
With the exception of the first series of the third quarter, the unit appeared aggressive and engaged.
Safety Gerald Bowman, defensive lineman Leonard Williams and linebackers Anthony Sarao and Michael Hutchings intercepted passes.
The Trojans were not distracted by the off-the-field incidents, players said.
“We pushed that to the side,” cornerback Kevon Seymour said. “We were just focused.”