USC vanquished its postseason demons from a year ago in a game filled with aggressive play-calling, passing prowess and sideline dances, as the Trojans (10-4) staked out an enormous first-half lead before cruising to the finish line in a 45-20 victory over Fresno State (11-2).
After getting embarrassed by Georgia Tech 21-7 in last year’s Sun Bowl, the Trojans were determined to make their return to postseason play a successful one.
“We definitely had the right energy that we needed today,” redshirt junior cornerback Josh Shaw said. “Having the opportunity to get 10 wins in college football is hard to come by. We had that opportunity in front of us and we weren’t gonna let it get by us.”
By the midpoint of the second quarter, USC’s players and coaches were jumping up and down in a huddle on the sideline after having their way with the Bulldogs’ defense. The Trojans used a 28-0 run to create a comfortable 35-6 halftime advantage.
With newly-announced head coach Steve Sarkisian observing from the press box, interim head coach and offensive coordinator Clay Helton showed he wasn’t afraid to call risky plays.
On their first drive, the Trojans converted a fourth-down attempt before opening up the scoring with a 10-yard pass from redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler to junior wide receiver Marqise Lee. USC then tried a two-point conversion, which was wiped out by a penalty, before attempting an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff.
“We said going into this game that we would fire every bullet that we had,” Helton said. “We told our offense, defense and special teams that we wanted to be ultra-aggressive and really come after what we felt was a terrific football team in Fresno State.”
Freshman safety Su’a Cravens recovered the onside kick, but the officials flagged USC for kick-catch interference. That call resulted in a short field for Fresno State’s offense, who took advantage by driving 33 yards for their first score. The extra point was blocked by redshirt junior defensive end George Uko (who was later ejected for bumping into a referee while engaging in a verbal altercation with a Fresno State player), however, and the Trojans clung to an early one-point lead.
From there, the Trojans shut out the Bulldogs for the rest of the first half while seemingly scoring at will. In short, USC fulfilled its potential and showed the Trojan faithful what can happen when a talented team is playing with nothing to lose.
“We came into this game wanting to make the Trojan Family proud,” Helton said. “These guys did a tremendous job of executing a game plan and really being into this game.”
USC established its passing attack early and often – four of the Trojans’ first five plays were passes – and redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler responded with arguably the best game of his career.
Kessler completed 22 of 30 passes for 344 yards – a career-high mark – and four touchdowns – a Las Vegas Bowl record – with one interception to earn Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl Rossi T. Ralenkotter MVP honors. By halftime, Kessler had already exceeded his average for passing yards per game (201.7) by completing 14 of 18 passes for 243 yards and four touchdowns.
Those feats are even more impressive considering USC was without two starters on the offensive line in junior guard Aundrey Walker and redshirt junior center Marcus Martin, who both suffered injuries in the regular season finale versus UCLA. A pair of redshirt seniors in guard John Martinez and center Abe Markowitz, who won the Offensive Outperformer Player of the Game award, filled in admirably.
“It was a great game today and it is 100 percent due to the offensive line,” Kessler said. “It is due to them and our receivers who are freak athletes.”
A 40-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wideout Nelson Agholor, who somehow held on after nearly bobbling it to the ground, put the Trojans up 14-6 with 6:22 remaining in the first quarter.
After the teams traded five fruitless drives, Agholor hauled in an even more impressive catch to put the Trojans up by two scores. Kessler let USC’s leading receiver go up and get a 17-yard touchdown reception that Agholor pinned against his helmet, evoking memories of New York Giants receiver David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII. The referees ruled it incomplete at first glance, but the replay review booth overturned the call to give USC a 21-6 lead.
The Bulldogs, under pressure to put together some sort of sustained drive, tried to gain some momentum by attempting a fake punt deep in their own territory on the ensuing possession. But the Trojans sniffed it out, setting up USC’s offense on the Fresno State 30. Two plays later, redshirt sophomore tailback Javorious “Buck” Allen responded with his first long run of the day, stiff-arming a Bulldog defender down the right sideline to clear the way for a 24-yard touchdown scamper that put the Trojans up 28-6.
After another Fresno State drive stalled, USC continued to pile on the points. A screen pass from Kessler to freshman tailback Ty Isaac resulted in a 35-yard gain after Isaac broke several tackles to bring the Trojans past midfield. Three plays later, Kessler found junior wide receiver Marqise Lee over the middle, and the former Biletnikoff Award winner outran the Bulldogs for a 40-yard touchdown reception.
Lee came into the game needing 12 receptions to pass Robert Woods as the Trojans’ all-time receptions leader. He fell a little short of that, recording seven catches, but still looked the most explosive he had all season while logging his first multi-touchdown game of the year to go along with a season-high in receiving yards (118).
“We knew he was going to do big things today,” Helton said. “I wish he could’ve been healthier earlier in the season, but we’re just thankful for all that he did for us in the season even when he was injured.”
Fresno State relied on the arm of quarterback Derek Carr all game long, electing not to run the ball until the second quarter on their fourth drive. But the nation’s leading passer was relentlessly pressured by the Trojans’ pass rush, and uncorked several overthrown passes to open receivers downfield.
“You gotta give it up to our front seven,” Shaw said. “We dialed up pressure and we kept giving Carr different looks, which teams hadn’t really done so far this season. We definitely had to mix it up going up against a QB like him.”
Carr became the 4th quarterback in FBS history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 passing TDs, but there wasn’t much else for the Bulldogs to celebrate.
After leading the nation with 409.8 passing yards per game and ranking third in total yards per game (570.6), the Bulldogs could only muster 217 yards through the air and 254 total yards against USC. Fresno State also ranked first in the FBS with 73 passing plays of 20-plus yards in the regular season, but only had one such play against the Trojans.
Aside from a couple turnovers in the second half that helped the Bulldogs reach the end zone twice more, it was a perfect ending to a tumultuous season for the Trojans. And being able to spend the week leading up to the game in Las Vegas had its advantages, too.
“The first night, some of us players went out and had a lot of fun and hung out together,” redshirt junior tight end Xavier Grimble said. “It was just a wonderful experience – and to get our 10th win to seal the deal was pretty cool.”