The Trojan faithful who trekked down the Interstate-5 saw an explosion of offense at the 2014 National University Holiday Bowl Saturday night, as USC topped Nebraska 45-42 despite a furious comeback by the Huskers.
Though it was the last game for many Trojan seniors and juniors declaring for the draft, it was USC’s young crop of talent that impressed. Freshman cornerback-wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson accounted for two touchdowns in the win, while freshman tight end Bryce Dixon added another in the Trojans’ first-ever appearance in the Holiday Bowl.
Jackson set a Holiday Bowl record with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown early in the first quarter to put the Trojans up 7-3, and hauled in an impressive 71-yard touchdown catch later on to put his team up 31-17.
Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler capped off his efficient season by tying former Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley’s single-season record with 39 touchdown passes in a year. Kessler finished the night with 321 yards, three touchdowns and an interception to bring his season totals to 3,826 passing yards and five interceptions.
Despite his accomplishments, Kessler remained humble.
“That is completely irrelevant to me,” Kessler said of tying Barkley’s mark. “And I’m not just saying that. I really do mean that. The win and loss, that’s the most important thing for me, [and] winning games for these guys. And if that happens to be breaking a record, if that’s what it takes to win a game, then so be it.”
Kessler announced after the game that he plans to return for his senior year and will try to convince a few of his teammates to do the same.
One of the players who might need convincing is junior defensive end Leonard Williams, who solidified his place as a potential top-five pick in the 2015 NFL Draft — should he forgo his senior season — with a number of crucial plays.
Williams racked up nine total tackles on the night as well as a sack of Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., and was key in thwarting the Huskers’ comeback that looked all-too-familiar to Trojan fans.
With a three-point lead and one second on the clock, USC lined up to defend a Hail Mary. This time — unlike against Arizona State earlier this season — the Trojans were successful in batting the pass down, clinching their ninth win of the season to finish USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s first year 9-4.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve had a couple just excruciating losses. And to come out tonight and win at the very end — we always try to make it exciting, we make it entertaining for everybody — I’m happy for these guys.”
USC held a 45-27 lead before ceding two touchdowns to close out the game. Following Kessler’s touchdown pass to Dixon, Nebraska’s Jordan Westerkamp scored on a 65-yard catch-and-run. Armstrong, Jr. punched in a 15-yard keeper and hit Kenny Bell on the two-point conversion to cut down USC’s lead to just three points.
Armstrong, Jr. set a career-high with 381 passing yards and threw three touchdown passes in addition to his touchdown run. The Trojan defense was unable to capitalize on a number of opportunities to intercept Armstrong, Jr., with sophomore linebacker Su’a Cravens hauling in the only pick of the game of the Huskers’ gunslinger.
The Trojans did a better job stopping the run, holding Nebraska’s star running back Ameer Abdullah to just 88 rush yards and a touchdown. USC’s redshirt junior tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen, meanwhile, scored twice on 152 rushing yards.
Allen, Williams and junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown and batted down the Hail Mary pass to clinch the win, are three underclassmen who might have played their final game for USC on Saturday night.
Though the Trojans will lose a crop of talented seniors in linebackers Hayes Pullard and J.R. Tavai, tight end Randall Telfer, cornerback Josh Shaw and safety Gerald Bowman, Sarkisian is optimistic about the program going forward.
“Our future — I’ll say it again — is ridiculously bright.”
Click here to see the game in photos.