Oh yeah, him.
All season long Cody Kessler has thrown the sharpest of darts through the deepest of shadows, Brett Hundley down the road, Marcus Mariota up the coast, Steve Sarkisian on the sidelines.
He has been shrouded in a conservative offense, his team has been hampered by a late-failing defense, and his growth has been stymied by his own inability to rise above the clutter.
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, from the blue skies above the Coliseum to the long stretches of unattended green field below, the stage cleared. Finally, as if he were born to the moment, Cody Kessler stepped strongly and squarely into role of The Next Great USC Quarterback.
Oh wow, him.
He threw perfect deep balls, pretty slants, scrambling screens. He tossed six touchdown passes over glistening golden domes, threw for 372 yards against blackened Irish eyes, and even once rumbled eight yards for a first down against gimpy Gippers.
Kessler led the Trojans to a 49-14 victory over Notre Dame, then did what every USC quarterback should do after beating Notre Dame. Without even needing the slightest Bush push, he ran to one end of the emptying Coliseum field and hugged Matt Leinart.
“This game makes him a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate for next year,” said Leinart, who led the team out of the tunnel with a howling pregame sprint. “His stats are amazing and he’s just getting better and better.”
There, somebody said it. And, yeah, Kessler is living it, unleashing his best for this biggest of national moments, just as former Trojans stars Leinart and Carson Palmer did during their Heisman Trophy-winning seasons. Palmer threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns against Notre Dame before winning his award in 2002. Leinart blitzed the Irish for 400 yards and five touchdowns two years later before claiming his prize.
Even against a young and injury-riddled Notre Dame defense, Kessler was an arm of beauty, throwing the most touchdown passes by an opposing quarterback in the 127-year history of Notre Dame football while completing a career-high 32 passes in just 40 attempts.
This season he has 36 touchdowns, four interceptions while completing 71% of his passes for 3,505 yards. Look familiar? Those numbers are at least similar, if not better, than those of Palmer and Leinart during their Heisman years.
“At some point, people are going to recognize him,” said Sarkisian. “Those are some ridiculous numbers we’re putting up right now.”
That point has been reached. The ridiculous has arrived. This game will surely make Kessler the lead in the Trojans’ bowl game narrative and the focus of their off-season buzz. The Bakersfield kid is perfect for the role. From his messy dark hair to the eye black that drips across his cheeks to the way he shrugs and defers to his teammates, he looks and acts the part of the aw-shucks stars that were once Palmer and Leinart before the bright lights.
When Kessler’s touchdown-pass record was announced Saturday in the fourth quarter, the crowd roared as the giant video board showed him standing on the sideline wearing headsets. No, he did not remove them, and no, he did not immediately respond. He actually did seem embarrassed by the attention. When he finally did wave, the student section began a cheer that could be heard for the next year.
“Co-dy Kes-sler … Co-dy Kes-sler…"
In his first postgame interview on the field, he related a story about buying dinner for his offensive linemen this week, even mentioning the exact cost — $230 — with a bit of astonishment in his voice.
“I told them, kind of as a joke, ‘If I’m buying, you guys are helping me out Saturday,’” he said. “And they did.”
Later in his news conference, he talked about getting scolded during the weeks of practice, all while thanking Sarkisian for it.
“Sometimes they get on me, they’re really hard on me, but when I get in the game, I really know where to go with the ball,” he said. “I’ve seen the look a million times, in practice and on film.”
Sarkisian, who has been painfully careful with Kessler throughout the season, is finally allowing him more freedom, with nine Trojans catching passes Saturday. Kessler, meanwhile, is finally feeling the confidence to look beyond Nelson Agholor and find those other Trojans, and they’re loving it. Perhaps his most impressive feat Saturday might have been in resurrecting George Farmer, as he hit the human blur on touchdown passes of 48 and 31 yards.
“When Cody is on fire, it’s kind of hard to stop him,” said JuJu Smith, who caught five passes.
Kessler has another year of eligibility, and he’ll be using it. Smith and Farmer will be joining him. While Saturday marked the end of an unsteady 8-4 regular season marred by awful losses including a third straight beating by UCLA, the emergence of Kessler could make this year the start of something much, much bigger.
“The sky is the limit for this offense and this team,” Kessler said afterward.
That sky finally cleared Saturday, allowing the Trojans to see all the way into a 2015 season framed by a bright number 6.