After wild week, Sark eager for USC to host Fresno
LOS ANGELES (AP) If Steve Sarkisian was a newcomer to Southern California, he might have been astounded this week when his head coaching debut with the Trojans was overshadowed by one player's bizarre lies about injuries and another player's accusations of racism.
Instead, this former USC assistant coach knows all about the circus that seems to follow the Trojans everywhere. Sarkisian can't wait to become the ringmaster on Saturday when Fresno State visits No. 15 USC to open the season.
''I'm more excited than anything else,'' Sarkisian said, recalling a lifetime of trips to the venerable Coliseum, from the 1984 Olympics to countless football games featuring the NFL's Raiders and the Trojans.
''Being a kid from Southern California and being the head coach at SC, and all of the history and tradition and coaches that have come down that tunnel, and the athletes, it's very humbling.''
Sarkisian gets a stiff test for his debut with the revamped Trojans, who thought they had some stability after a tumultuous 2013 with three coaching changes, innumerable off-the-field distractions and - somehow - 10 victories.
The last of those wins was a 45-20 blowout of Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, setting up USC's first back-to-back games against the same opponent in 97 years.
Although 16 Fresno State starters return from last season's powerful team, the Bulldogs must figure out life after quarterback Derek Carr and his 27 school records.
The Bulldogs know the Trojans' offensive players well after last December's meeting, which would be an advantage if Cody Kessler and his teammates weren't running a new offense. Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme contrasts with USC's pro-style sets under Lane Kiffin.
''One of the good things for us is we see that type of offense every day,'' Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. ''I don't know if the tempo itself will be something new. The athletes they have doing it will be something different than we've seen in the past.''
The Trojans will be without starting cornerback Josh Shaw, who has two high ankle sprains of infamously murky provenance. Sixth-string tailback Anthony Brown also quit the team, but not before posting and deleting accusations of racism against Sarkisian on social media.
Another team might be stymied by this wacky week. The Trojans just keep moving.
''We've had to deal with so much adversity in past years already,'' USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. ''We're used to playing through things like this. We're not going to let it affect us.''
What to watch in Sarkisian's debut:
BULLDOG BANS: USC's distractions and drama could create opportunities for the three-touchdown underdogs on the other sideline, yet Fresno State didn't exactly have a banner week, either.
Bulldogs linebackers T.J. Thomas and Robert Stanley and receiver Dillon Root are suspended for the opener, and cornerback Corey Ferguson was dismissed from the program Thursday for a violation of team rules.
WHO'S THE QB?: DeRuyter won't reveal the identity of Carr's successor until game day. DeRuyter expects both quarterbacks to play in the first half against USC, but the Bulldogs' apparent indecision isn't a vote of confidence for Brian Burrell or Duke transfer Brandon Connette.
As Kessler and former Trojans quarterback Max Wittek can attest from their experiences last season, it's usually not ideal to head into a season sharing a starting job.
''It probably won't be settled until we get into the league as to who's going to be our quarterback,'' DeRuyter said. ''If there is one that definitely separates.''
KESSLER'S ENCORE: After starting all 14 games last year, Kessler is back for his junior season with the Trojans. He has been eager to work with Sarkisian, the former BYU quarterback who tutored Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart as an assistant at USC.
Kessler remembers his nerves before last year's opener, and he doesn't think they'll return. ''I've got a year under my belt, and I know what to expect,'' he said.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: These schools have met only three times, but all three games have been landmarks for the winner.
When Fresno State visited the Coliseum in November 2005, Pat Hill's team nearly pulled off an unthinkable upset before falling 50-42 to the top-ranked Trojans. The schools' first meeting was Fresno State's 1992 victory in the Freedom Bowl, still considered the most important win in school history.
FOR STARTERS: Fresno State has won nine of its last 10 openers, but USC's previous five head coaches have all won their debuts.