Las Vegas Bowl preview: USC's focus crucial against high-powered Fresno State
Las Vegas is a fitting location to end what has to be one of the most unusual, up-and-down seasons in USC football history. After a disappointing start that cost Lane Kiffin his job, a mid-season resurgence under Ed Orgeron, a deflating loss to UCLA and the surprising hiring of Steve Sarkisian, it has been a very interesting season for the Trojans to say the least. A matchup with one of the nation’s best non-BCS teams in Fresno State should provide an exciting finale to it all.
Who: USC (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) vs. Fresno State (11-1, 8-1 Mountain West)
What: Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
When: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 12:30 p.m. PT
Where: Las Vegas, Nev.
Where to watch: ABC with Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer, David Pollack, Sam Ponder.
All-time record – Fresno State leads 1-0 (USC won a 2005 matchup, but the victory was vacated due to NCAA penalties)
Last meeting: Nov. 19, 2005 (USC won 52-40 in Los Angeles, but the win was vacated)
Rushing offense: USC 174.2 ypg (58th in NCAA), Fresno State 162.7 ypg (tied 70th in NCAA)
Passing offense: USC 218.1 ypg (77th in NCAA), Fresno State 409.8 ypg (1st in NCAA)
Scoring offense: USC 28.5 ppg (68th in NCAA), Fresno State 45.3 ppg (5th in NCAA)
Rushing defense: USC 127.1 ypg (19th in NCAA), Fresno State 147.7 ypg (40th in NCAA)
Passing defense: USC 214.5 ypg (32nd in NCAA), Fresno State 277.4 ypg (116th in NCAA)
Scoring defense: USC 21.3 ppg (tied 21st in NCAA), Fresno State 29.1 ppg (80th in NCAA)
How they got there
A week after an uninspired opening win at Hawai’I, the Trojans suffered a 10-7 upset loss at home to Washington State in which their offense averaged just over three yards a play. The defeat caused doubt of Kiffin’s ability to successfully lead the program to grow. Kiffin guided the Trojans to two more non-conference wins against Boston College and Utah State to push the Trojans to 3-1, but the team’s offensive struggles continued to disappoint fans. A blowout loss at Arizona State cost Kiffin his job and dropped the Trojans to 0-2 in conference play.
USC turned to defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron to lead the way for the rest of the season and the coaching change paid immediate dividends. “Coach O” led the Trojans to six wins in seven games, including a marquee upset of Stanford at The Coliseum in mid-November. Under Orgeron, USC surged to No. 23 in the polls and a 9-3 record amid serious buzz that the interim coach could possibly coach himself into the full-time position.
Unfortunately for Orgeron, the Trojans would come up very short in their final, and most important, game of the regular season – a 35-14 loss to UCLA. Orgeron fell out of the race to replace Kiffin and Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian was announced as the next head man at USC.
Led by rising coaching star Tim DeRuyter and Heisman candidate quarterback Derek Carr, the Bulldogs came into 2013 with some of highest expectations in program history, including dreams of a BCS berth. It got off to a tense start, with the Bulldogs claiming three of their first four wins by a total of six points to get off to a perfect 4-0 start.
Fresno State opened things up a bit more in the softer, middle portion of their schedule, as they won five of their next six games by at least two scores to get to 10-0 and No. 16 a spot in the polls, with a BCS bowl likely just two wins away.
However, those BCS dreams would be shattered in the final game of the regular season when the Bulldogs lost a 62-52 shootout to San Jose State. They bounced back in the Mountain West Championship Game in which they pulled out a 24-17 win over Utah State and finished the regular season 11-1.
The Trojans will have their third head coach of the season as offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be serving as the interim coach for the game. Working as USC’s quarterbacks coach since 2010, Helton helped turn Matt Barkley into a Heisman candidate and played a key role in Cody Kessler’s improvement through the 2013 season. It’s likely that Helton will put an emphasis on trying to get the Trojans’ passing game going with an improved Kessler and a hopefully healthy Marqise Lee.
Interestingly enough, Fresno State’s DeRuyter was rumored to be a candidate for the USC job, in part due the Bulldogs’ 20-5 record the past two seasons and their explosive passing offense. Despite having a background as a defensive coach, the Long Beach, Calif., native has turned Fresno State’s passing offense into the best in the country with a spread, up-tempo attack led by Carr. On defense, DeRuyter puts a huge emphasis on getting after the passer, as his team is near the top of the country in sacks and tackles-for-loss.
Defensive end Leonard Williams – An All-American and future first round NFL draft pick, Williams might be the most athletic defensive linemen in the entire country and he uses that athleticism to make tackles all over the field, in both stopping rusher and getting after the quarterback. Versatile and explosive, he’s a serious force to be reckoned with on the defensive side of the ball.
Wide receiver Marqise Lee – Lee came into the 2013 season as a potential Top 5 NFL Draft pick and Heisman candidate, but was derailed by injuries and USC’s struggles on offense. Still, Lee should be fully healthy for the Las Vegas Bowl and is arguably the nation’s best deep threat, so expect the Trojans to look for him downfield in a game where they may need to put a lot of points on the board to win.
Quarterback Derek Carr – David’s little brother is an equally impressive talent that looks to also be a lock to be selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, possibly even the first pick. Many haven’t seen Carr since he plays in the Mountain West, but he is a lot like David – big and strong with a rocket arm, underrated mobility and an ability to fill up the stat sheet.
Wide receiver Davante Adams – Carr’s favorite target is a big (6 foot 2, 216 pounds) sophomore touchdown machine that caught 23 touchdowns on 122 receptions in 2013. Adams uses his size well and is great in jump ball situations, but also has great speed that he uses on the edge and when beating defenses deep.
-Fresno State’s 409 yard-per-game passing average is the highest in the entire country.
-USC’s record against non-Pac-12 California schools is 84-20-8.
-Carr’s 48 passing touchdowns leads the nation and he has thrown 10 more than the nation’s second-leading touchdown passer, Jameis Winston (38).
Keys to the game
For USC: Staying motivated for the game despite all of the coaching changes and disappointment of the 2013 season.
The Trojans came into the Sun Bowl wholly disappointed last season and it showed as they were dominated by Georgia Tech in a disastrous loss where they failed to do much of anything on offense. USC will need to bring their absolute best effort Saturday, even though they may be playing in a lower-tier bowl game, as the Bulldogs are a good enough opponent to embarrass them if they don’t.
For Fresno State: Maintaining their prolific passing attack against USC’s defense and keeping Carr upright.
The Bulldogs may have the nation’s best passing attack, but they have not yet faced a defense with the talent of USC’s, especially up front. Their biggest challenge will likely be keeping USC’s ferocious front seven, which is one of the nation’s best at sacking quarterbacks, from getting after Carr and stalling their aerial attack.