Kessler's 4 TD passes lead No. 8 USC past Arkansas St, 55-6
LOS ANGELES (AP) Southern California's long-running NCAA troubles and coach Steve Sarkisian's more recent personal drama all faded away when the Trojans got back to football with a flourish.
Cody Kessler passed for 236 yards and four touchdowns, Tre Madden rushed for 106 yards and a score, and No. 8 USC beat Arkansas State 55-6 Saturday night in its season opener.
Madden, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steven Mitchell Jr. and Oklahoma transfer Taylor McNamara caught TD passes from Kessler in the Trojans' first game since the official end of NCAA scholarship restrictions on the perennial power. The Trojans are still rebuilding their depth as they renew their chase of the national title, but they had more than enough talent to trounce the Red Wolves.
''For the first game against a very dangerous opponent, it was a good first win,'' said Sarkisian, who spent the past two weeks apologizing for his alcohol-influenced behavior at a pep rally. ''I loved it. This is what I love to do, so I was proud of the guys.''
Kessler went 19 for 26 with no turnovers to begin his third season as USC's starter. Although he was sacked five times, the senior steadily led the Trojans to a 36-point lead before taking the fourth quarter off in USC's 18th consecutive season-opening win.
Kessler directed praise to the Trojans' playmaking freshmen, particularly the tailback trio featuring Ronald Jones II, Aca'Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis. Jones and Ware scored touchdowns while USC played 13 freshmen against Arkansas State.
''That was my favorite part of the game with those guys,'' Kessler said of the freshmen. ''They gave Tre a little bit of help, and that's what we want everybody to do at their position.''
Chris Hawkins made an interception and recovered a fumble for the Trojans. Su'a Cravens also picked off a throw from Fredi Knighten, who went 8 for 23 for Arkansas State.
Michael Gordon rushed for the only touchdown for the Red Wolves, who have made four straight bowl games. Arkansas State couldn't keep up with USC's elite playmakers, but still bothered Kessler after recording 37 sacks last season.
''We were trying to use some quickness and some movement to try and make (Kessler) uncomfortable,'' Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. ''We did that at times. Not consistently. ... There's a reason that he is touted as maybe the best in the country, and we saw that.''
The past three USC teams played with significant limitations on scholarship players under NCAA sanctions stemming from the saga involving former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. After signing the nation's top-rated recruiting class in February, the Trojans are beginning this season with 81 scholarship players, up from 67 last season.
The Trojans started quickly, just as Kessler had hoped. Smith-Schuster took a short pass around the corner of the defense for a 61-yard score on USC's fourth play, and Mitchell caught a 14-yard TD pass to end the quarter.
Madden then broke a 65-yard run in the second quarter for his first rushing touchdown since Sept. 28, 2013. The senior missed two of the past three seasons with injuries, but recovered to reclaim the starting job at Tailback U.
After McNamara scored in his first game at USC, Madden added an 8-yard TD catch in the third quarter. Jones made a speedy 44-yard run for his first touchdown late in the third to push USC's lead to 42-6, and Ware became the Trojans' third freshman to score when he rushed for a final TD with 4:16 left.
In between, USC freshman linebacker Osa Masina returned a lateral pass 46 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Adoree Jackson, who plays defensive back and receiver for USC, pulled up short during a kick return and sat out the second half with an abdominal strain. Jackson described the injury as minor, saying he's absolutely certain he'll play next week against Idaho.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org