Although the Trojans never imagined the path to the Pac-12 title game would include so many detours and setbacks, they're still grateful for the journey.
Particularly because the path led straight through UCLA.
Kessler threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score, and USC clinched the Pac-12 South title with a 40-21 victory over No. 22 UCLA on Saturday in the 85th edition of their crosstown showdown.
After snapping its three-year skid in the annual city rivalry game, USC will face Stanford next Saturday in the Trojans' first trip to the Pac-12 championship game.
"I lost it a little bit up there at the end," said Kessler, the three-year starter who beat UCLA for the first time. "It's the way you want to go out. It was tough walking off that field for the last time, but that was the way I wanted to do it."
USC improved to 5-2 under interim coach Clay Helton, winning five of its last six games to earn a shot at the Pac-12 title despite a litany of off-field distractions headlined by coach Steve Sarkisian's midseason firing.
"This was the goal and the plan all along," linebacker Su'a Cravens said. "I don't like the way we got here, but we'll still take it."
While the Trojans' offense held the ball for 40 minutes, USC got its game-changing plays on defense and special teams.
Adoree Jackson returned a punt 42 yards for a touchdown shortly before halftime, and Rasheem Green put the Trojans ahead to stay in the third quarter when the freshman defensive lineman returned Josh Rosen's fumble for a 32-yard touchdown.
"This was a great day for our seniors, and especially because we run L.A.," said USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had six catches for 85 yards.
After another physical performance in the style preferred by their new coach, the Trojans renewed their calls for the full-time hire of Helton, who deferred any speculation about his job prospects.
"This was a great opportunity for our seniors to leave their legacy," Helton said. "They're leaving their mark not only for now in the immediate moment, but for years to come."
Paul Perkins rushed for two touchdowns for the Bruins (8-4, 5-4), who lost to USC for the first time in coach Jim Mora's tenure.
Serious injuries and season-long inconsistency finally caught up to UCLA, which lost two of its final three games. The Trojans grinded out 235 yards rushing against the Bruins' beleaguered run defense.
"It's a new feeling for us here," Mora said. "The game turned, obviously, on the punt return there right before the half and the turnovers in the second half. We couldn't get any, and they did, and they capitalized."
"I just felt like we made that defense look a lot better than they necessarily were," Rosen said. "No shots at them at all, we just didn't execute like we should have."
Both teams wore their home jerseys in the revived rivalry tradition on a crisp, clear day at the Coliseum, and Kessler sneaked into the end zone to cap an 85-yard USC drive early in the second.
Rosen looked sharp until USC's defense finally got pressure on him on consecutive plays deep in UCLA's end late in the first half. Jackson took the ensuing short punt all the way back, showcasing his track-star speed to put the Trojans ahead 20-14.
Perkins' second TD run capped a 78-yard drive shortly after halftime, and UCLA appeared to be taking control until USC's Claude Pelon abruptly jarred the ball loose from Rosen, allowing freshman Green to take it to the house untouched.
Pelon heard the crowd's roar while he was face down on the turf.
"I just knew something good was going on," he said with a grin. "I looked up, and it was seven points."
Moments later, Marshall picked off a short throw for Rosen's first interception in 245 passes since the Stanford game, the longest interception-free streak in the FBS.
Rogers' back-shoulder TD catch put the Trojans up 33-21 entering the fourth quarter. McNamara caught a 7-yard TD pass moments later.
Herschel Walker wins Georgia's Republican Senate primary
Former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker won Georgia's GOP Senate primary on Tuesday.
Why Field Yates thinks Malik Willis is a perfect fit for the Titans
Field Yates explains why the Titans made a shrewd move by choosing Malik Willis with the 86th pick.
Amid NIL drama, Alabama lands ESPN 300 QB Eli Holstein, former Texas A&M commit
Quarterback Eli Holstein, the No. 59 recruit in the ESPN 300 and originally a Texas A&M commit, has now committed to Alabama.
College football offseason primer 100 days before Week 1 kicks off
From the state of the game to transfer updates to the best sights and sounds of the offseason, here's everything you need to know 100 days before Week 1.
Pac-12 college football preview: USC, Utah bring intrigue to former South division
The Trojans have had a makeover, while the Utes return tons of talent from last year's champs. Here's a look at the former Pac-12 South.
Stephen A.: 'Nick Saban made a huge mistake' calling out Fisher and Sanders
Marcus Spears and Stephen A. Smith don't agree with Nick Saban calling out Jimbo Fisher and Deion Sanders about use of NIL.