Cody Kessler promises this year will be different.
For those with last year’s Sun Bowl debacle still fresh in their heads, there might be some cause for concern as USC heads into Saturday’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State. Motivation, or lack thereof, doomed the Trojans in the 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech. It served as the final “haha” (in the voice of Nelson Muntz) moment for those whose cup was bubbling over with USC schadenfreude in 2012.
Not again, pledges the USC quarterback. Different team. Different chemistry. Different motivation.
“Obviously last year wasn’t the season that we wanted,” said Kessler, who only appeared in one game last year and attempted two passes. “It was difficult to see where we finished compared to where we started. A lot of guys weren’t into that game. But this season speaks for itself. Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”
Consider Kessler during the first five games, when Lane Kiffin was still the head coach. He was completing 63 percent of his throws, averaging just 166.4 yards per game and had six touchdowns to four interceptions. His raw QBR was 39.9 and his adjusted QBR was 48.9.
Since Kiffin was relieved of his duties and Clay Helton has stepped in to run the team and the offense, there have been significant improvements. He’s completing 65 percent of his throws, his yards are up (223.8), his mistakes are down (10 touchdowns to two interceptions) and he’s a more efficient quarterback with a raw QBR of 61.8 and an adjusted rating of 70.3.
Part of it has been Helton. Part of it has been the fact that he’s got more experience. And part of it was just a change of scenery.
“We’ve had three head coaches in one season,” he says with a gotta-laugh-at-it-attitude. “That’s crazy. Coach Helton and I are very close. I’m closer to him than anyone else because he’s my position coach. I spend every day with him. We have that connection. I know what he’s thinking before he ever calls it.
“But a lot also comes from experience. Playing in tough games like Notre Dame and Oregon State really helped me move forward and feel comfortable. It was hard at first switching between starts because it’s tough to establish yourself as a leader. But once I got the job, things started to work out.”
He’s hopeful things will work out one more time with his friend Derek Carr on the other side of the field. Both from Bakersfield, Calif., Kessler and Carr used to train together, so they are friends and familiar with each other’s résumés. With 48 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and more than 4,800 yards passing this season, Carr’s résumé is a little more polished. But that’s not something that concerns Kessler.
“He’s a great guy and a great quarterback, but I don’t watch a ton of offensive film,” he said. “During the game I’ll be watching because it’s back and forth. If they score, I know we have to go out and score. I know Derek and I know they are capable of putting up a lot of points. Everyone in the country knows that. So we have to eliminate turnovers and finish in the end zone. You can’t settle for field goals against these guys.”
Of course, another major distraction that they’ve tried to make a non-distraction has been the presence of new head coach Steve Sarkisian. He replaces popular interim coach Ed Orgeron, who promptly left the program when he wasn’t promoted officially to head coach. So far, Kessler said he and his teammates have been fans of Sark’s hands-off approach.
“He’s been talking to us in team meetings, but we came so far with these coaches and he’s letting them finish it out,” Kessler said. “He’s watching and talking, but his main focus is us getting the 10th win and letting these guys finish it because there was so much time and effort on their part and they deserve it.
“I think he sees how far we’ve come as a family with these coaches and Sark respects that. I think that says a lot about him. Out of respect for those guys, he wants them to coach us to hopefully what will be that 10th win.”