Cody Kessler's confidence is growing

Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, he of legendary fourth-and-nine heroics against Notre Dame, animatedly led USC players out of the Coliseum tunnel and onto the field for the Trojans' game Saturday against then-fifth-ranked Stanford.

It proved a prescient bit of celebrity scheduling after quarterback Cody Kessler produced his own fourth-down moment during USC's game-winning drive.

Kessler's stirring performance in the 20-17 upset showed a young quarterback coming of age.

Leinart, who guided USC to two national titles, had predicted as much.

Before the game, he sent Kessler a good-luck text message that read: "This is when legends are born."

On the sideline before kickoff, he reiterated to the third-year sophomore, "The spotlight is on you. This is where you take over. This is where you show what you can do."

Kessler responded by coolly completing 25 of 37 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown. He also demonstrated, for the first time at USC, the ability to consistently deliver pressure-packed passes into tight spaces.

"What I see is his confidence getting bigger," Leinart said this week. "When you're confident, you start making throws."

Kessler has completed 65% of his passes, 13 for touchdowns, with six interceptions. But only one pass has been intercepted in the last four games, none in the last two.

His clutch play against the Cardinal spurred congratulatory text messages from Leinart, former Trojans quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Mark Sanchez, and others.

All recognized a major step in Kessler's development.

"I just felt like, I'm 100% in control," Kessler said. "Like, I know I can play."

Kessler, who was No. 3 on the depth chart last season, has been aided by inspiring words from coaches, teammates and former players such as Rodney Peete and Heisman winner Marcus Allen.

Allen was invited to address the Trojans a few days before the Oct. 10 game against Arizona, USC's first under interim Coach Ed Orgeron. Kessler was stunned, and impressed, when Allen called out several players by name.

"He said, 'This is your team, Cody,'" Kessler recalled. "'These guys look up to you. These guys will follow you. Wherever you go, they're going to go.'"

Kessler played well in a victory over Arizona and nearly led the Trojans to a win at Notre Dame. He was efficient in a victory over Utah and then led USC's first victory at Oregon State in nearly a decade. Kessler hit receiver Marqise Lee in stride on a deep route for a long touchdown in that game. He also delivered a perfectly placed pass that Lee dropped in the end zone and shook off an interception that was returned for a touchdown.

At Cal, Kessler completed 14 of 17 passes.

That set the stage for Stanford, which featured one of college football's most aggressive and experienced defensive fronts.

"I had a lot of pressure on me to make plays," Kessler said, noting that Stanford played well, as expected, against the run. "I felt like, 'This game's going to come down to me throwing the ball and how accurate I am.'"

On USC's first possession, Kessler scrambled out of the pocket and found receiver Nelson Agholor. Then came a seminal moment: a strike to Lee along the sideline at the one-yard line, the ball delivered to the only spot in which it could be caught. Two plays later, Kessler tossed a short touchdown pass to fullback Soma Vainuku, one of eight receivers Kessler utilized against the Cardinal.

On USC's next possession, Kessler made another tight-window completion to freshman receiver Darreus Rogers. His pass to Lee for a two-point conversion was more of the same.

"The whole game, I had the same exact level of emotion," Kessler said. "I didn't feel nervous at all."

The key test came late in the game.

Facing fourth and two at the Cardinal 48 with the score tied and 1 minute 23 seconds left, Orgeron called timeout and looked at offensive coordinator Clay Helton.

"What do you think?" Orgeron asked. "Do we have a good play?"

"Yes," Helton said. "We have a play."

Twice in the game, Lee had gone in motion and Stanford's nickel back had stayed with him. The second time, the defender had played to the outside, and Lee told Helton he could beat him to the inside.

"Sometime in this game, we're going to use that exact same motion, he's going to jump outside and we're going to run a slant," Helton told Lee.

That moment was upon them.

"We could have run the ball," Kessler said. "Instead, they put the ball in my hands and trusted me."

With Stanford bringing pressure, center Marcus Martin's snap to Kessler in the shotgun formation was low. "I had a miniature heart attack for a second," Helton recalled, laughing.

But Kessler bent down, clutched the ball and fired it to Lee.

"I just remember catching it, finding Marqise and throwing it right before he broke, right in the tight window," Kessler said. "I didn't see [the snap] was low until I saw the film."

The 13-yard completion kept alive a drive that also featured a pass to Agholor before Andre Heidari kicked the game-winning field goal with 19 seconds left.

Orgeron had previously praised Kessler for his moxie and leadership. Converting that fourth-down play "said a lot about what we think of him," Orgeron said.

By Tuesday, Kessler had put the game behind him and was working with Helton to correct footwork that caused him to misfire on a few passes.

"The best thing I can say about Cody is that you see the product of a humble quarterback, somebody that comes in week in and week out and does not feel like he's arrived," Agholor said.

Kessler intends to build on his Stanford performance Saturday at Colorado and in the regular-season finale against UCLA.

"That game's over with," he said of Stanford. "It was great and people are going to remember it, hopefully, for a long time.

"But I have a short memory. I have to forget about it and move on."

Twitter: @latimesklein

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