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Record Day For Cody Kessler Powers USC Past Colorado

Matthew Tufts |
October 18, 2014 | 8:44 p.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor

A week after USC head coach Steve Sarkisian told the media that he wished his quarterback would throw the long ball more often, Cody Kessler answered. Oh, did he ever. 

Kessler unleashed his cannon for a USC single-game record seven touchdown passes in a 56-28 win over Colorado. It’s a feat never before accomplished by a USC quarterback, including the likes of Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. Barkley threw for six touchdowns against Colorado in 2012. 

As if the seven touchdown performance wasn’t impressive enough, the order made the accomplishment even more incredible. Kessler threw four touchdowns in the first quarter, matching his career high in a game. He threw five by the end of the first half. Most absurdly, he threw numbers six and seven in the third quarter. No quarterback in Pac-12 history has ever thrown seven touchdown passes in the first three quarters of a game. That is, until now. 

Kessler got some help from his wideouts. Freshman receiver JuJu Smith got things started early with a wide-open 45-yard grab deep into Colorado territory. He finished the day with 104 yards and a touchdown on only four receptions. Kessler’s favorite target, junior Nelson Agholor went off for 128 yards and three touchdowns on six catches, hauling in a 75-yard play-action bomb to the endzone.

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After the game, Agholor praised his quarterback (and roommate), but was quick to the move the conversation from statistics to the attitude of the team moving forward.

“This game marked our second half of the season," said Agholor. "We were trying to show we matured, and I think we took a good step forward.”

Incredibly, the Trojans’ offensive display happened on only 61 offensive plays. But head coach Steve Sarkisian says that explosiveness is something they want to integrate in their offense. 

“We wanted more explosive plays on offense and we did that from the beginning...We got yards in chinks and score more points.”

Sarkisian willingly admitted that those plays won’t always result in long touchdowns, but said the inclusion of those plays is critical to their scheme.

“They were't all completions," said Sarkisian. "They weren't all caught. It became an aspect of our game to create bigger plays.”

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Kessler threw his first interception of the season last game, something some believed to be stressing out the senior quarterback. Kessler however, said he didn’t buy into the hype and treats it just like he would an incompletion or a misread. Though he says he has always been a conservative passer, he is ready to make those long throws and give his receivers a chance to make plays.

“I pride myself on not turning over the ball," said Kessler. "[But] at the end of the day, you can only do so much in that category and you got to give your guys chances to make plays...If [it's] one-on-one, trust our guys and let them make a play. That's why we recruit guys here."

Other highlights:

USC red zone defense—The Trojans defense virtually shut down the twelfth ranked passer in the nation for the first half, holding Colorado’s Sefo Liufau to a mere 90 yards and no touchdowns, while recording two interceptions. However, the one area of concern for the defense was on red zone conversions. USC entered the game ranked No. 11 in the nation (first in the Pac-12) in red zone defense (.682), but allowed Colorado to go 4-4 with a touchdown on every trip the Buffaloes took inside the Trojan 20-yard-line. This included a fourth-down scramble by Liufau on the Trojans’ five-yard-line, which eventually set up a one-yard touchdown plunge by Michael Adkins, II.

JuJu Smith—While there wasn’t a lot of room left in the spotlight after Kessler’s record-breaking performance and Agholor’s three-touchdown night, freshman receiver JuJu Smith showed why he arrived at USC with a five-star label. Smith is a 6-foot-2, 210 pound freak of an athlete, and he put it on display early on, reeling in a diving, one-handed catch by the USC sideline. Even more impressively, he did that while wearing a soft cast under his glove because of an injury to his thumb.

But the most visibly impressive facet of Smith’s game was his separation. Smith is fast, but only clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash last year. It appears now that he may have gotten faster in college. Colorado’s defensive backs couldn’t keep up, as he ended up wide open on several occurrences, two of which resulting in 40-yard plus plays.

Balanced running game—Sarkisian said before and after the game that he believes the team is functioning at its best when they are running the ball well. After Javorius “Buck” Allen’s 200-yard performance against Arizona, it’s hard to argue with him.  

Even amid the aerial attack Kessler unleashed Saturday night, the Trojans still impressed on the ground. Allen broke loose for a trademark 39-yard scoring sprint in the second half, en route to recording continuing his streak of at least 100 all-purpose offensive yards in every game this season. With his touchdown Saturday night, Allen has also scored in all but one game (Stanford) in 2014. Sophomore Justin Davis also rushed for just shy of 100 yards, including a 47-yard burst down the sideline. 

"I love the fact that we had two backs just over 100 yards and we threw seven touchdowns," said Sarkisian. "To me, that's an awesome identity to have."

It's clear that no matter how many records are set through the air, Sarkisian believes in keeping the ball moving on the ground. 

"I think that we are a team that believes in running the football and I am not going to change that...You also have to have the ability to throw. When you have those two things going for you, life is good."

You can reach senior sports editor Matthew Tufts here and follow him on Twitter.



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