First and foremost, we hope everybody had a very Merry Christmas with their family, friends and fellow sports fans, taking some time to celebrate another fantastic year together. So, in the spirit of Christmas and the holiday season, we let the USC Athletic Department take center stage to pump out the cheer.
Thanks to @USCTMB for the Christmas Carols today inside the McKay Center. pic.twitter.com/yn4e1XI3uv— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 23, 2013
Time for some Christmas Q&A as we dish out the postseason awards for USC Football.
1. Who was the offensive MVP of the season? Why?
Nick Selbe: Cody Kessler. For the first half of the season, Tre Madden undoubtedly claimed this title. But injuries derailed his special season in the making, and though Buck Allen was named team MVP by players and coaches, I'll give Cody Kessler the nod due to his steady and at times stellar play despite playing with a revolving door of a supporting cast. So many running backs, receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen were injured and replaced, yet Kessler's production not only held steady but increased as the season went on. During the second half of the season, in the Stanford game in particular, Kessler showed his mobility that was heavily discussed in the preseason. This helped extend plays after his offensive line failed to hold up against the pass rush. His performance against the Cardinal was his best, most clutch of the season, and his MVP-performance in the Las Vegas Bowl victory was a big statement performance that the starting job should be firmly his as the Steve Sarkisian era is set to begin.
Luke Holthouse: Cody Kessler. There were a lot of different receivers, a lot of different running backs and a lot of different lineman that played crucial roles in the Trojan offense this year, but only one quarterback. Well, at least after Week 2. Once Kessler officially got the starting job over Max Wittek before the Boston College game, he really took off and started playing well. His completion percentage of 65.4%, quarterback rating of 148.8 and passing yardage of 2,968 all ranked in the top 30 for college quarterbacks in the nation. Most importantly, he only threw seven interceptions and took care of the ball well.
Trevor Wong: Cody Kessler. He had a TD/INT ratio of 6/4 and completed just 66/104 passes in five games under Lane Kiffin. Keep in mind this was while splitting some duties with Max Wittek. But after Kiffin's dismissal from the team, the redshirt sophomore signal caller really improved. Kessler had a TD/INT ratio of 14/3 and completed 170/257 passes - a 66.1 percent completion rate. He also threw for 200 passing yards or more in six of the final nine games, including a stretch of four straight. As such, USC finished with their second 10-win season over the last three years, and Kessler was a key reason why.
Michael Luca: Cody Kessler. From spring scrimmages to Week 3 of the season, quarterback was USC's laminated question mark. As we conclude our winter wonderland, amid the injuries and coaching carousel, Kessler became the sole constant and then some.
Throughout the offense's discovery of itself, Kessler protected the football with only seven interceptions, made plays when he needed to (and when his offensive line allowed for them), relied on his able-bodied playmakers accordingly, and silently but effectively orchestrated the Trojans through adversity. Come the Las Vegas Bowl, his box score elevated from Matt Cassel-y (strictly 2008 or 2010) to that of a Matt Leinart or Matt Barkley when Kessler finished 22-of-30 with 345 passing yards and four touchdowns.
Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor displayed glimpses of Hollywood stardom, but it's the sophomore quarterback conducting the Spirit of Troy moving forward, pending Max Browne.
Shotgun Spratling: Buck Allen. Through USC's first eight games, the Trojans were 5-3. USC finished the season winning five of its last six games. It was after the 19-3 win over Utah that Javorius "Buck" Allen took over as the primary running back through a combination of injuries and opportunity. He ran with the opportunity, averaging 148.5 combined yards rushing and receiving while scoring 13 touchdowns in the final six games. Coincidence that USC went 5-1? I think not.
2. Who was the defensive MVP of the season? Why?
Nick Selbe: Hayes Pullard. Hayes Pullard served as one of the team's two defensive captains and led the Trojans in tackling, but he was undoubtedly the heart, soul and voice of this unit. As an undersized middle linebacker, he did more than his fair share of holding down the middle of the field in both run and pass defense. Pullard has been such a steady contributor to the defense for three seasons now that he most likely is taken for granted, but should he declare early for the NFL Draft, fans will most definitely notice his absence in 2014.
Luke Holthouse: Leonard Williams. USC had the best pass defense in the conference not because of really strong play from the secondary but because of consistent pressure all year on opposing quarterbacks. Leonard Williams was probably the most crucial applicant of that pressure for the Trojan defense as the team's star defensive end. He may not have led the team in sacks (Devon Kennard) or tackles (Hayes Pullard), but he was second in both of those categories and tied with Kennard for the team lead in tackles for a loss. He was also the only Trojan named to the Pac-12 first team defense or ESPN's All-American team.
Trevor Wong: Leonard Williams. He finished second on the team in total tackles (74), tied for first on the team in tackles for losses (13.5) and second on the team with six sacks. He also forced two fumbles (led the team) and recovered another. The USC defense was clearly a strong point for the team all season, and it started up front with the defensive line. Williams played an integral role in Clancy Pendergast's scheme, wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. At times early in the year, the defense won games single handedly for USC, and Williams played a significant role. He was named a 2013 All-American first teamer by ESPN.com, too.
Michael Luca: Leonard Williams, with the consolation prize being awarded to everyone else. It remains an absolute mystery why retaining Clancy Pendergast isn't more of a priority. I'm scared he happened in Vegas and Pat Haden left him in Vegas.
This 5-2 look floated and sunk, but mostly soared as a unit. From true freshman Su'a Cravens to the notably improved junior Josh Shaw, the secondary was this defense's pronounced weakness, and yet a relentless pass rush from the front seven both masked and showcased it. Credit their 16 interceptions to 35 sacks, and overall cohesiveness with interchangeable parts.
As far as singling anyone out, Williams' All-American recognition is no hoax. His 13.5 tackles for loss led the team, his exhibited passion in the process was infectious, and when Morgan Breslin went down, Williams devoured the void like a Parkside cheeseburger.
Shotgun Spratling: Josh Shaw. Give plenty of credit to Leonard Williams (as many of you have). There's a reason he was named an All-American. Something should be said about the soul of the defense -- good pals Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey. But if you want the Most Valuable Player on the defense, give me Josh Shaw. In the middle of the season, Shaw went from a position of strength to a position of need, showing his versatility and shoring up a problem area at cornerback. Shaw made big play after big play in the secondary where the Trojans were the weakest this season.
3. Assess the 2013 football season: what grade do you give the Trojans for their play?
Nick Selbe: A-. It's hard to justify giving this team anything lower than an A-. After Lane Kiffin was fired, the team found its stride, turning in only one bad performance (Notre Dame) in a game it should have won. Beating Stanford was an enormous accomplishment, as was winning 10 games, given the roster attrition and unprecedented coaching turnover. The loss to UCLA hurts this grade, of course, because players, coaches and fans expect to beat the Bruins every year. But the fact is that UCLA was better than USC this season, so I can't fault the Trojans too much for the loss. The bottom line, though, is that given the circumstances, this should have been a 6 or 7-win season, and it was much more than that.
Luke Holthouse: C+/B-. I really thought this team had a chance to win the Pac-12 South. As it turned out, the Trojans were a mere win against Arizona State from a rematch with Stanford in the Pac-12 championship. Ten is a lot of wins, and the one against Stanford was particularly awesome, but four is a lot of losses, and I still can't wrap my head around the fact that one of them was to Washington State. The season really should be considered two different seasons, with Lane Kiffin's portion pretty close to an F and the Orgeron/Helton's portion more like a B+. The players deserve a lot of credit for sticking through these less-than-ideal coaching situations, and if I had to give the players a grade independent of all the administrative drama, it would be like a B+/A-.
Trevor Wong: B-. As stated earlier, the Trojans finished with their second 10-win season in the last three years, even after going through three different head coaches. They finished the season 7-2 after the Arizona State debacle, but lost both rivalry games to Notre Dame and UCLA. That alone couldn't bump the grade up any higher. Their signature win was clearly the upset win over No. 4 Stanford, but considering the circumstances, this USC team played quite well under a lot of adversity.
Michael Luca: A-. Three head coaches + the founding of a Trojans infirmary in the place of a new School of Dramatic Arts building + sustained motivation up to and through a non-BCS bowl = 10 victories and an A-. I wasn't a math major -- my former roommate was, but I grew frightened of him and would rather ask his bicycle to check my work. Losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA held the Stanford upset back a grade, but extra credit for reintroducing cookies to the menu.
Shotgun Spratling: B+. I feel like this is two separate questions. If you're assessing the season, the grade is a C or C+. USC may have got to the 10-win plateau, but 10-2 before the NCAA's addition of a 12th regular season game a decade and a half ago is a lot different than 10-4 with a 13th regular season game due to playing Hawaii. Throw in losing to both rivals and this isn't a season you'd brag about.
But if you're assessing the team the grade is an A or A-. Just considering the multitude of issues the players had to endure throughout the year with an early season QB competition, a middle of the night firing, interim head coaches, an ongoing coaching search and the uncertainty that goes with that, etc. Then there were the injuries and the limited depth. Remember when Nathan Guertler and Robbie Kolanz were getting feature stories...and significant playing time? This team was the definition of fighting on. They just kept producing week in and week out, no matter the circumstances.