Quarterback Cody Kessler directs the Trojans offense against Arizona. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. — Upon arriving at USC's team hotel late Thursday night, quarterback Cody Kessler picked up his room key and made his way toward a ballroom set up as a dining center.
"Good memories from this place," he said, to no one in particular.
Two years ago, Kessler was a wide-eyed freshman learning the steps of preparation from road-game roommate Matt Barkley, who in 2009 led USC to victory over Notre Dame in his first game at Notre Dame Stadium.
On Saturday night, Kessler will try to do the same when USC plays the Fighting Irish in the 85th football game between the rivals.
The game every other year at Notre Dame Stadium has become a rite of passage of sorts for USC quarterbacks.
Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Barkley each led the Trojans to victories in their first games at the historic venue, where USC has not lost since 2001.
Kessler will try to extend the winning streak to six games. "I feel like this is my team," he said after practice this week.
Kessler, a third-year sophomore from Bakersfield, is coming off his most complete performance. In last week's 38-31 victory over Arizona, he passed for 297 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception. He also scrambled for a 34-yard gain that helped set up a field goal.
As offensive coordinator Clay Helton called plays for the first time, Kessler worked off a strong Trojans rushing attack to complete short, mid-range and deep throws, including a 62-yard scoring pass to receiver Nelson Agholor.
Ed Orgeron, USC's interim coach, was impressed by Kessler's moxie and toughness.
"I can see the guys starting to believe in him," Orgeron said.
Kessler and Max Wittek each played about a half in the Trojans' first two games before former coach Lane Kiffin named Kessler the starter. In four games since, he has completed 63 of 102 passes for 993 yards and seven touchdowns, with two interceptions.
Kessler said he gained confidence from Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen, who addressed the Trojans a few days before the Arizona game.
"He said, 'This is your team. You're the quarterback and these guys are going to play for you and you have to play for them.'" Kessler said. "And I feel like I really have done that. "Everyone has bought in."
On Wednesday, it was Kessler who was scheduled to do the buying. The quarterback planned to take offensive linemen to dinner at Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles. Their date was rescheduled for next week because Orgeron had catered Cajun fare for the team on campus.
"We're building that relationship," Kessler said of the offense. "We're getting really close."
Orgeron appears to have brought the Trojans closer since he replaced Kiffin on Sept. 29. He has been boisterous and animated in the meeting room, on the practice field and on the sideline, and he has allowed assistants to make personnel decisions during games.
The players have responded. "His personality is coming out in this football team," Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said of the Trojans.
Orgeron has at least seven more games to persuade Athletic Director Pat Haden that he would be the best choice for the full-time job.
If USC defeats Notre Dame, Orgeron would join John Robinson and Paul Hackett as the only new Trojans coaches to guide the Trojans to victory in their first games against the Fighting Irish.
No new USC coach has won a debut against Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium. That could change if the Trojans shore up their secondary and if Kessler and the offense continue to perform.
"We just have that camaraderie — we feel comfortable with each other, we feel good with each other," Kessler said. "It's awesome. I feel we're starting to reach our full potential."