National University Holiday Bowl preview: USC vs. Nebraska
It was an up-and-down season for No. 24 USC. First-year Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian led them to an 8-4 record, 6-3 in conference, and a fourth-place finish in the ultra-competitive Pac-12 South. On Dec. 27, they head to San Diego to face Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl (5 p.m. PT, ESPN).
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The high-powered Trojan offense propelled them to wins against some tough opponents, including Arizona, California and Notre Dame. Quarterback Cody Kessler led the team to an average of 294.6 yards per game, good enough for 15th in the country. A Hail Mary from Arizona State on Oct. 4 handed USC its first conference loss, and three weeks later Utah's touchdown with eight seconds left in the game dropped the Trojans to 5-3. They rebounded to win decisively over Washington State and Cal before losing to their cross-town rival UCLA 38-20. USC shook off that loss, however, and won big over Notre Dame to finish off the regular season.
Nebraska started the season a perfect 5-0 before losing to No. 10 Michigan State in Week 6. The Cornhuskers finished the year 9-3 (5-3 in conference), and their only losses came at the hands of ranked opponents: Michigan State, No. 20 Wisconsin and No. 25 Minnesota.
Despite the successful season, Nebraska fired head coach Bo Pelini after the final game of the year and, in a surprising turn of events, hired away Oregon State's Mike Riley. Riley won't be leading the charge against the 'Huskers in the Holiday Bowl, though -- that'll be interim head coach Barney Cotton.
USC PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Cody Kessler (3,505 yards, 36 TD, 4 INT)
In his second full season starting under center for the Trojans, Kessler made huge strides. He threw for almost 600 more yards and 50 more completions than in 2013. He lowered his interceptions from seven to four, threw 16 more touchdown passes and raised his passer rating from 148.8 to 168.8. The junior was a three-time Pac-12 offensive player of the week this season and had a completion percentage of 80 against Notre Dame – his highest of the year. Kessler has continued to improve week to week. Look for him to have a big game against the Cornhusker defense that allowed 24.9 points per game and 5.9 yards per catch.
WR Nelson Agholor (1,223 yards, 11 TD)
Agholor led the Trojans in receiving yards and was second in the Pac-12 this season with 1,223. He had over 100 yards in five different games, averaged 12.6 yards per catch and scored in seven of USC's games. His banner season was capped off by big touchdown catches in wins over Cal and Colorado. The Nebraska defense allowed an average of 12.3 yards per play, so Agholor and the Trojans will need to take advantage of that.
DE Leonard Williams (6 sacks, 71 tackles)
Coming into the 2014 season, Williams was considered by many to be the best defensive back in the country. He was over-shadowed by fellow Pac-12er Scooby Wright of Arizona, but Williams put together a solid year. The 2013 All-American led the Trojans with six sacks and was second with 71 tackles. He averaged six tackles per game, a stat USC will find helpful in stopping Nebraska's run game.
NEBRASKA PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Ameer Abdullah (1,253 yards, 18 TD)
The senior running back had his most efficient year in 2014, despite missing most of the Nov. 1 game against Purdue due to a knee injury. His 1,253 total yards was 11th-highest in the nation, as were his 18 touchdowns. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry, more than any running back in the Pac-12. Abdullah is probably Nebraska's biggest offensive weapon, and his speed could make or break the Cornhuskers on the scoreboard.
QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. (2,314 yards, 19 TD, 11 INT)
The sophmore quarterback struggled to find consistency this year, with a passer rating ranging from 69.5 to 208.3. Armstrong began the season strong before faltering in November, throwing five of his 11 picks in the final month of the season. He was also tackled 11 times in November. If Armstrong can get the protection he needs and has enough time, he has the ability to make a big throw downfield.
Coach Barney Cotton
Nebraska's season ended on a low note, losing two of its last three games and barely squeaking out the win over Iowa in the season finale. It's also been a tumultuous time for the Cornhuskers with the unexpected firing of Bo Pelini. Several players, including Armstrong, took to Twitter to express their sadness and shock. Cotton is tasked with keeping his team focused on USC and the game ahead instead of the staffing changes.
STATS TO KNOW
- USC is averaging 35.1 points per game, good enough for 27th in the country
- Nebraska tops that stat with an average of 37.4 points per game, 14th in the country
- The Cornhuskers have racked up an average of 248.3 rushing yards per contest, 17th in the country
- USC is tied with Arizona State for the most interceptions in the Pac-12 this season (13)