The Sports Xchange

By Steve Lowery, The Sports Xchange

USC opens Sarkisian era with rout of Fresno State

LOS ANGELES -- Having endured a week that ran the gamut of soap opera ("As The Ankle Turns") and reality mess, USC did its own very convincing impression of a video game on Saturday night, soundly beating Fresno State 52-13 in the season opener for both teams at the L.A. Coliseum.

Using new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo offense, the 15th-ranked Trojans scored touchdowns on their first three drives and seemed to do whatever they wanted offensively throughout the game.

"That was fun," said Sarkisian, who had been offensive coordinator for USC before leaving to become Washington's head coach for five years, and returned promising to instill the no-huddle, fast-paced offense he had used up north.

But before he could, stuff happened. Weird stuff. The sideline must have been a welcome respite for Sarkisian, who spent the week answering questions about suspended USC cornerback Josh Shaw's bogus story about injuring his ankles while saving a drowning child and then had to react by being called a "racist" by a former player.

"Nowhere in the coaching manual is there a section that tells you how to deal with what we had to deal with this week," Sarkisian said.

But any concerns anyone had that the week's events would have an effect on USC were dispelled almost immediately as the Trojans scored touchdowns early and often. USC quarterback Cody Kessler ran Sarkisian's offense as if he had been doing it his entire career, throwing for four touchdowns and a career-high 394 yards.

"I always thought (Kessler) would be a good fit in the system," Sarkisian said. "His athleticism, his ability to buy time and then throw an accurate ball; he drove the car really well tonight."

Kessler and USC's impressive performance came against a quality opponent. Frenso State is a two-time defending Mountain West champion that played USC in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. But the Bulldogs seemed not only to have no answer for USC but to be knocked a bit back on its heels by the Trojans' pace. Midway through the first quarter, Bulldogs defensive linemen already appeared to be gassed with hands on hips.

"We couldn't get off the field in the first half," said Fresno State safety Derron Smith. "There were lots of times where we just couldn't make a tackle or get a stop."

Sarkisian said he was aiming for 85 offensive plays in the game, but the Trojans were even faster than that. They had run 97 plays -- the most by a Trojans team since 1972 -- midway through the fourth quarter.

The Trojans gained 430 yards on 62 plays in the first half. Not only were they fast, but they were balanced, throwing 31 passes and running the ball 31 times in the first 30 minutes.

Things got off to a fast start on USC's first possession. Starting at their own 10 after the opening kickoff, the Trojans went on a 17-play, 90-yard drive resulting in a touchdown on Kessler's 1-yard run.

USC went on to score touchdowns on its first three drives and Kessler threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns in the half, including an 18-yard strike to prized recruit Adoree Jackson with less than a minute left in the second quarter.

Fresno State's quarterbacks struggled. Starter Brian Burrell couldn't move his team and was replaced in the second quarter by Brandon Connette, who seemed to spark the Bulldogs, taking them on a 75-yard TD drive, with Marteze Waller scoring from the 1 on fourth down.

But Connette struggled himself, completing just 4 of 13 passes and throwing two interceptions.

"At times we got into a really good rhythm," said Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter. "But we just couldn't sustain it."

Kessler said he and his teammates are hoping they can sustain what they did Saturday next week when they travel north to play Stanford in the Pac-12 opener for both teams. Kessler said he's never concerned about what his team has gone through or what they face, given that they all went through a baptism by fire last season when they managed to win 10 games despite playing under three head coaches.

"We went through so much last year," he said. "Nothing can affect us."

NOTES: Perhaps a sign that USC is almost recovered from NCAA scholarship sanctions, the Trojans played nine true freshmen in the first quarter. ... Though it came in as a three-touchdown underdog, Fresno State didn't figure to be intimidated by USC, which it beat in a bowl game in 1992. In fact, besides USC, Fresno State has beaten five other Pac-12 programs, including Oregon State and UCLA twice each. ... USC DE Leonard Williams, already projected by some as the top pick in next year's NFL draft, intercepted a pass in the second quarter and returned it for 10 yards. It was Williams' second career interception.

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