Fresno State - Position Grades
Quarterback - What more could have you asked for from Cody Kessler? The junior threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns in only three quarters. He commanded the huddle exceptionally and was accurate with every pass. I can only remember one time where he didn’t give his receiver a chance to catch the ball, that being right before halftime when he spiked a ball to Nelson Agholor. Heidari likely hits that field goal if the ball is on point to Agholor, but I don’t think Kessler will lose any sleep over it. I was also very impressed with how well Kessler threw the ball while on the run. He showed mobility, pocket presence and poise Saturday afternoon. What a game. Grade: A.
Running Backs - The Trojans got ample production from the running back position on Saturday afternoon. Javorius ‘Buck’ Allen ran for 133 yards and one touchdown, dragging along multiple defenders for the ride. It was my second time watching Buck Allen, and I continue to be impressed with his strong running. Sure, he weighs in at 220-pounds, but he runs like a full back. Combine that with his speed and it’s a scary combination. That jump cut he made on his touchdown run was something impressive. The redshirt junior picked up some key blitzes and prevented a couple of sacks on Saturday afternoon so that definitely bumps up his grade. However, he did have a fumble on the day which knocks his grade down a little bit. Justin Davis did not impress me all that much and he fumbled the ball away as well. He wasn’t quick hitting the holes and I think this team can definitely use Tre Madden back from injury. And now on to the walk-on. James Toland jumped out at me. Not just because he was a freshman, but because he hit the open holes hard and did not go down easy, just like Buck Allen. I’m not sure how heavily recruited he was, but he looks like he should have garnered multiple division one offers. The fumbles knock this grade down, and I know this group can be a little better. Grade: B.
Wide Receivers - If you didn’t get a ball thrown your way on Saturday, and you were a wide receiver, you might have been doing something very wrong. Cody Kessler found seven different wide receivers on the day, ten pass catchers in all (Buck Allen, Justin Davis and Bryce Dixon were the others), and it was very hard not to be enamored with true freshman Juju Smith. He showed flashes of playmaking ability similar to that of Marqise Lee and he caught four passes on the day for 123 yards. That’s what I call introducing yourself to the conference. He just seems like a natural wide receiver and if I were Sark, I wouldn’t even try him at safety. He did have a couple of penalties throughout the day which knocks the overall grade down a little, but he had one heck of a debut. Nelson Agholor was as expected to me. He wasn’t amazing and he wasn’t bad at the same time. He had a couple of drops, but also made a leaping TD catch over a Fresno State defender. Darreus Rogers was Kessler’s go-to-guy and he came up clutch numerous times on the opening drive. George Farmer flashed some speed on his first catch and that definitely caught my attention. You can see the potential there. The other hyped freshman Adoree Jackson looked awesome out there as well. I loved how Sark brought him in motion before his touchdown catch. Gave him more acceleration off of the line and he found a nice seam in the defense for his first career touchdown. Grade: B+.
Tight Ends - Besides JuJu Smith and Adoree Jackson, Bryce Dixon looked like the most impressive freshman to me. He blocked well, made an awesome touchdown grab and looked like he had played in numerous college games before. He had the key block on JuJu Smith’s big 50+ yard reception and blocked well in pass protection. He did have a ball go right through his hands, but I’d attribute that to freshman jitters. That’s pretty much the only time during the game that he looked like a true freshman. Randall Telfer blocked well throughout the game and played like the experienced player he is. Grade: B.
Offensive Line - What a surprise here. Heading into the game, I thought these guys would earn a grade of a C or below, but they definitely played better than my expectations. I thought they played just okay in the first half in the run blocking phase of the game. They allowed the Fresno State defenders to push them back a bit and penetrate into the backfield, but that got better in the second half. That being said, their pass blocking was exceptional for the duration of the game. They gave Kessler time to progress through his reads, make a decision, and scramble out of the pocket if need be. Another thing that impressed me about the group is that they improved throughout the game. Their run blocking during the second half was stellar and with some more experience, I think this line could turn out to be a strength of the team. Grade: B+.
Defensive Line - All I heard about before moving over to USCFootball.com was Leonard Williams and how solid the defensive line was. He pressured the quarterback a couple of times and was close to getting a few sacks. He had a couple good pass breakups as well. The group suffered a tough injury in the offseason when Kenny Bigelow went down, but they responded well this fall. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the defensive line was solid on Saturday afternoon, but I think they have so much potential and they can be so much better. Leonard Williams had a great game. He placed himself nicely on his interception and he could have even had another one. Antwuan Woods clogged up the middle at times, but was nowhere to be found on a couple of big run plays. He was also playing with the brace that he hates on his left arm so that could have bugged him at times. Connette had a few big runs, but I don’t really fault the defensive line for that. Claude Pelon was playing in his first game so it wasn’t a surprise he didn’t make much noise on Saturday. Another thing I noticed was the Fresno State offensive line chop blocking on nearly every pass play. It’s tough to get a good pass rush when the offense is just trying to get the ball out of their quarterback’s hands as quickly as possible. This unit was good, but can definitely be better. Grade: B-.
Linebackers - This was the least impressive position group to me. They looked uninspired at times late in the first half and early in the second. There’s no excuse for that, but I think there is an excuse for their lack of production. Justin Wilcox probably wanted to keep the calls a little vanilla in lieu of the big matchup next weekend, so we didn’t see very many blitzes or looks form this group. J.R. Tavai missed a sack by an inch as he slipped just before reaching the quarterback. Scott Felix only made one or two plays. Hayed Pullard was his All-Conference self as he lit up a couple Fresno State guys throughout the day. Anthany Sarao was basically handed that interception, but he still made a nice one handed grab. It’s hard to grade this group when we didn’t see a whole lot from them when it comes to mixing up looks and what not. They did wrap up pretty well on third downs though, after some missed tackles from cornerbacks. Grade: C+.
Defensive Backs - Kevon Seymour played a great game. I’ll start off with that. Expectations have risen for him coming off of last years MVP performance at the Las Vegas Bowl and he definitely lived up to them on Saturday. He had multiple key pass break ups and great coverage throughout the day. He did give up a couple of catches, but he was also matched up against Fresno State’s best receiver for most of the game. That’s expected to happen. Chris Hawkins looked like a redshirt freshman. Missed some tackles on third down, but was pretty solid in coverage. He’s young, but you definitely see the potential there and with more experience, he will be a key contributor on this defense down the road. Su’a Cravens made some good plays on special teams, but also cost the team 15-yards after a kickoff for unsportsmanlike conduct. He caused an errant throw from Fresno State’s quarterback after a blitz off the edge that forced a fourth down, which bumps up his grade. Leon McQuay made some good tackles at the line of scrimmage and that’s another young player that has lots of room for improvement. Gerald Bowman had a great interception in the first half and made a few big hits throughout the game. He should step up as a leader on this defense. Could have had an easy pick-six though. Grade: B+.
Punting/Kicking - Coming off of a season with seven missed field goals, Andre Heidari is on the hot seat. He was 1/2 on field goals and missed a fairly easy field goal at the end of the first half, which obviously knocks down his grade. He consistently got kickoffs to Fresno State’s end zone, which will be important to do next week as Ty Montgomery is an All-American return man for Stanford. Just ask Sark. Montgomery returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in last years Washington-Stanford showdown. Punting doesn’t factor into this grade, because, well, the Trojans didn’t punt. Grade: B-.
Coverage/Return Teams - Great kick coverage throughout the game. Fresno State doesn’t have any speedsters returning kicks, but nonetheless, the Trojans did their jobs on special teams. Su’a Cravens and JuJu Smith both had penalties on special teams plays which knocks this grade down, but overall, a solid day on coverage teams for USC. The return game didn’t play much of a factor in this one as Agholor didn’t get to return any punts and all of his kick returns were pretty mediocre. Adoree Jackson only gained 10 yards on his punt return. Good start though. Grade: B.
Defensive Coaching Pretty plain, vanilla stuff from the defensive coaches, and with good reason. They’re saving most of their looks for the Stanford game and I don’t blame them. Overall, Wilcox called a pretty nice game and did what the team needed him to do. Grade: B.
Play calling - I’ve watched Sark call plays for five years years now and Saturday was one of the better games he has called. The runs mixed with the play-action passes mixed with the wide receiver screens gelled well together and that resulted in a historic day on offense for the Trojans. His best play call of the day: option play on the one yard line that Kessler kept for a touchdown. Everyone thought they were going to pound that in with Buck Allen. Grade: A.
Overall - I don’t think any Trojan fan was disappointed in Sark’s debut. Why would they be? But I have to take the opponent into consideration here. Fresno State is a formidable opponent, but lost pretty much their whole offense from last season. Overall though, great game by USC. Not much else to it. Better bring it next week. Grade: A, close to an A+.
Marshall Cherrington will be attending USC and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism beginning in January of 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @MWCherrington.