1. Why was the Stanford victory the biggest win of the season?
Luke Holthouse- After losing to the Cardinal four years in a row, it was about time for the Trojans to finally beat Stanford. USC is a couple more wins in that game away from totally reclaiming the title, but I think the Trojans are on their way to reasserting themselves as the best team in California (though that would also require beating UCLA consistently again).
More importantly, the game was the first time I really felt that the whole school came together around the team. I'm not talking just about the storming of the Coliseum, but with the atmosphere that morning during the filming of College GameDay, all throughout the afternoon during the Homecoming tailgate and during the game, it really felt like USC football was back.
Mike Luca- Because on 4th-and-2 with 1:23 left in a 17-17 slugfest, USC officially trusted Cody Kessler as its starting quarterback. It was the biggest win of the season because a 47-yard field goal for Andre Heidari is like a 67-yard field goal for Justin Tucker - just barely possible. It was the biggest win of the season because fans stormed the field as though they either were Georgia Southern or "World War Z" was believed to be real. It was the biggest win of the season because despite College GameDay's visit to McCarthy Quad and Lee Corso's bloody blessing, a primetime bout with the nation's No. 4 team was arguably the only game on USC's schedule that it was "supposed" to lose, and they did not.
Evan Budrovich- The Stanford victory not only gave USC a major confidence boost, it also put the program right back into the national spectrum. While the win against Oregon State may have been equally impressive, given the historical context of USC's road woes in Corvallis, defeating a top-five program in dramatic fashion seals the deal in my book. This game also showcased how impressive the Trojans defense could be against an equally physical opponent, plus it culminated quite the weekend with the emotional highs of Orgeron plastered all over the College GameDay experience.
Shotgun Spratling- It wasn't just beating a top 5 team. It was exercising demons against a team the Trojans hadn't been able to get over the hump against in recent years. Stanford kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired in 2010 with the assistance of some "creative" clock operations to help them have enough time to get into field goal range. In 2011, the clock was against the Trojans again as they couldn't get one final second to attempt a field goal in regulation. Then the heartbreaking fumble in the end zone ended the game in triple overtime.
Last season, USC was ranked No. 2 and never could find an offensive rhythm with Khaled Holmes out of the lineup and dropped the game by a touchdown. Stanford had its longest winning streak against USC ever entering this year's game, but the Trojans were up for the task. USC beat a team that was coming off a recent thrashing of perceived national contender Oregon and everyone stepped up their games. Cody Kessler was forced to step forward with the Cardinal shutting down the run game. He did that. Andre Heidari stepped up with the game winner and the defense was stellar throughout.
2. How impressed were you with Cody Kessler's record-setting performance in the Las Vegas Bowl?
Luke Holthouse- I think Kessler played very well in Vegas. He distributed the ball well amongst his receivers, had only one bad mistake on his interception and capped off what overall was a really good year for him. He's not the biggest or most physically gifted USC quarterback ever, but he protected the ball well, wasn't afraid to air it out and played a big role in what was one of USC's most interesting season's ever. Though Sarkisian says the starting quarterback position will be open for competition in the spring, and the no-huddle system may or may not fit Kessler's skill set, it would require an outstanding spring from one of the other quarterbacks to take the starting job from him.
Mike Luca- Before the Las Vegas Bowl, I was an advocate for Kessler maintaining his starting gig in the face of 5-star demand for Max Browne. In that sense, I'm more relieved than impressed, and now the bandwagon is filled to the point of tipping over into Traveler's...hoof prints.
The box score indicates that Kessler can thrive as the conductor of Sark's spread option and the next figurehead in USC's quarterback lineage, but his best work was done before kickoff. His stirring motivation of teammates and follow-up performance simultaneously defended Pat Haden's hire and led the charge in honoring Ed Orgeron. Of course Kessler had no choice, since his job is on the line, but the elevated poise and leadership trump his first career 300-yard game.
Evan Budrovich- Coming into the game, I expected Kessler to perform well given Fresno State's porous pass defense. What most impressed my from the Vegas Bowl was that Kessler was able to manage the situation and play within himself and stay composed against the Bulldogs' top-ranked pass rush.
Knowing that USC was limited with depth on the offensive line, Kessler got the ball out of his hands quickly and promptly fed playmakers Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee for quick completions, setting the stage for success all day long. His most impressive play however, may have come on the opening drive when he evaded the rush, scrambled to the open side of the field and drilled a bullet pass to Darreus Rogers on third down. Those were the type of instinctual plays that Kessler made to keep drives alive and fuel USC's pass-heavy attack in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Shotgun Spratling- Impressive? Yes. Surprising? Not really. Kessler did what he's done throughout the season, getting the ball to playmakers and letting them do the work. Against a weaker Fresno State secondary that resulted in big numbers.
3. What individual performance stood out most this season?
Luke Holthouse- Though it was in a losing effort, Tre Madden left everything he had on the field against Washington State. Kessler's breakout game as the official starter against Boston College was a great sign of more to come from him. Buck Allen had some very big games this year, most notably the crucial win over Oregon State. Marqise Lee looked like his old self in the Las Vegas Bowl, though that probably punched his ticket for the NFL. And the defense as a whole looked really good against Stanford, Fresno State and just about every opponent this year.
Mike Luca- An individual's standout three-game stretch will have to suffice. With Redd sidelined, Tre Madden began 2013 with contests of 109 yards, 151 yards, and 102 yards back-to-back-to-back. As LA Times' Gary Klein reminded us: "The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Madden is the first USC player to rush for more than 100 yards in the first three games since Marcus Allen achieved the feat in 1981, the year he won the Heisman Trophy."
Madden proved amid the early quarterback controversy that USC can still effectively run the football no matter who garners touches, and that Dion Bailey isn't the sole linebacker hybrid that deserves attention. Hope and an established identity ensued...and then Madden got hurt, so cherish that time you all spent together.
Evan Budrovich- The best individual performance of the season has to be awarded to Buck Allen, who rushed six times for 135 yards (2 TD) and scored a touchdown on a 57-yard dump-off pass against Cal Berkeley. It wasn't necessarily that he saved the day for USC (because the game was far out of reach from the start) it was actually how dominant and explosive Buck looked with the football in his hands that makes this performance stand out from the entire season.
Shotgun Spratling- Man that's a tough one. I think it should be noted that defensive lineman Leonard Williams had 12 tackles and half a sack against Arizona and J.R. Tavai subbed in for an injured Morgan Breslin to record 11 tackles and two sacks against Utah. But I'm going to the darkest hour when USC lost to Arizona State.
While the score ended up quite lopsided, the Trojans were right with the Sun Devils until an interminable third quarter. The reason: the combined efforts of Justin Davis and Tre Madden. The two young running backs each scored three touchdowns and combined for 316 yards with Davis getting 122 yards on 10 carries and Madden rushing for 128 yards and catching three passes for 66 yards.
4. Did you feel USC deserved its 10-4 record? Was it too high, too low, or as Goldilocks would say just right?
Luke Holthouse- Yes, I think 10-4 is just about right. Although both the Washington State and Notre Dame games were two missed Andre Heidari field goals away from victories, we got unusually lucky against Stanford on a couple of turnovers. The defense came to play every week, but couldn't find an answer to Arizona State or UCLA.
I thought USC had a chance at winning the Pac-12 South, and a win against Arizona State would have done so, but there just wasn't enough depth on the roster for the Trojans to have a great season. But through it all, a ten-win season is a good total, and I think USC is a good team despite all the strange coaching circumstances, and I'm excited about watching this team in future years.
Mike Luca- Unlike Goldilocks or Reggie Bush, the Trojans' 10-4 record and the house they earned it in irrevocably belong to them. The manner in which USC came out to play in each game was rewarded appropriately by a win or loss, and if Washington State was supposed to be a win, then Stanford should have been a loss. The Pac-12 referees weren't that bad. That being said, considering the coaching overhaul, prolonged effects of sanctions compromising depth and player safety, external doubts and excessive distractions even for a Los Angeles-based sports team, 10 victories is remarkable.
Evan Budrovich- The Trojans got exactly what they deserved. While the loss to Washington State stings like no other, the following loss to Arizona State opened the floodgates to fire Lane Kiffin. In terms of the Ed Orgeron tenure, losing to Notre Dame may have been the one loss where USC can really search for answers as to what went wrong with Cody Kessler and the USC offense. Losing to UCLA is always tough to swallow but to be honest, USC did not come ready to play and Jim Mora made all the adjustments throughout the game to assure victory. So with all that being said, 10-4 season with some quality wins sprinkled in seems just about right.