It was not a perfect night for Cody Kessler, far from it.
But to see his shoulders relaxed, the skip in his step, the smile creep across his face, it may have been the perfect ending.
In the first game of the Post-Lane Kiffin Era on Thursday night for USC, Kessler helped exorcise some of the demons that plagued the Trojans offense. Some, but not all.
But a win for himself, for his teammates, for his new head coach – that meant more than a sparkling completion percentage.
“You want a coach you would freaking go to war for every time, like this man here to my right,” Kessler said about new interim head coach Ed Orgeron after completing 15 of 30 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns in USC’s 38-31 win over Arizona at the Los Angeles Coliseum. “I don’t just speak for myself, I speak for the whole team. We’d go to war for this guy any day of the week.”
You can understand his enthusiasm.
After being yanked around by Kiffin throughout fall camp – and even two games into the season – Kessler played on Thursday as if the massive ball and chain around his ankle was snapped off and thrown into the L.A. River.
Kessler was not officially named USC’s starting until Week 3 after Kiffin wanted to prolong the competition between the redshirt freshman and sophomore Max Wittek, even though Kessler reportedly vastly outplayed Wittek throughout the spring, summer and fall camp.
Against Boston College that week, Kessler completed 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two scores. On Thursday, again bolstered by renewed confidence and enthusiasm, he was not as sharp, but he was as potent, even without superstar receiver Marqise Lee.
Kessler had touchdowns of 63 and 62 yards, finding a new favorite target in Nelson Agholor, who had seven receptions for 161 yards and the tone-setting 63-yard bomb less than three minutes into the game.
Kessler even added a 34-yard run, USC’s best from a quarterback in recent history.
“We know on third down they get a lot of man and they didn’t leave anybody on me,” Kessler said. “It was nice; that’s going to have to happen sometimes. Guys aren’t always going to be open, so you’ve got to make stuff up on your own.”
It was that improvisation and looseness that was missing for weeks. If USC can pair an innovative, exciting offense with its fine defense, the Trojans may turn their season around.
“A-plus, A-plus,” Orgeron said of USC’s offensive performance, which included 547 yards and 27 first downs. “I didn’t have to say a word in my headset except ‘thatta boy, good job Cody, good job Clay.’”
Kessler noted that he appreciated the opportunity to play fast under offensive coordinator Clay Helton – who picked up playcalling duties – without “a lot of movement or motion,” while answering the questions about how he’d perform without Kiffin at the helm.
He said that he learned the offense from Helton — along with former USC quarterback Matt Barkley — and that he considers the coach family.
“Me and Coach Helton are very close,” Kessler said. “I’ve spent more time with him than I do with my own family now.”
Things were all roses and sunshine down in the postgame news conference, not just for Kumbaya Kessler, but Orgeron as well.
“I had a blast,” Orgeron said. “I think I woke up happy for the first time in my life this morning besides the day I married my wife and had my kids. I’m not a happy guy, but today I was happy.”