USC Trojans: vegas bowl 2013

The USC Trojans defeated the Fresno State Bulldogs 45-20 in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

It was over when: Buck Allen crossed the goal line on a 1-yard run with 4:44 left to put USC up 45-20. The Trojans had taken a 35-6 lead at halftime before Fresno State made a brief run to close the gap, but Allen provided the finishing touch with his second touchdown of the day.

Game ball: Cody Kessler. The USC quarterback set a career high, and a Las Vegas Bowl record, with four touchdown passes, and he had those in the first half alone. Kessler ended the day by completing 22 of 31 passes for 344 yards, along with one interception that was returned for a touchdown. Kessler also earned hometown bragging rights with longtime friend and fellow Bakersfield native Derek Carr from Fresno State.

Key stat: Marqise Lee with seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Those are the type of numbers that were routine for Lee in his 2012 Biletnikoff Award-winning year, but a pair of injuries in 2013 curtailed his performance. If that was his final game in a USC uniform, as it is widely expected he will declare for the NFL draft, it was a fitting ending for one of the best playmakers in school history.

Key stat 2: Fresno State came in averaging a nation-leading 409 passing yards per game. USC held the Bulldogs to 217.

Unsung hero: Dion Bailey. The Trojans' slot defender in their nickel package was all over the field posing problems for Carr. He had a pair of key tackles for loss and got in passing lanes to help thwart the short passing game of the Bulldogs.

What it means for Fresno State: It means the Bulldogs won’t reach their goal of a program-record 12 wins but that doesn’t take away from what was accomplished this year. Not only did they tie the record for most wins, but also they captured the first-ever MWC title game and had one of the top passing offenses in the country, led by a likely first-round draft choice in Carr. And, to top it off, they won’t have to wait long to get a shot at revenge, as they face the Trojans in the 2014 season opener.

What it means for USC: The goal for these players and coaches was to reach 10 wins in what was a season of adversity and change. It also was a resounding performance from those who wondered about the sense of motivation for the team, especially after last year’s effort in the Sun Bowl. Clay Helton hands off the Trojans on a good note, and now the Steve Sarkisian era begins.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, click here.

Inside the locker room: Las Vegas Bowl

December, 21, 2013
LAS VEGAS -- Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from Sam Boyd Stadium after the Trojans (10-4) defeated Fresno State (11-2).

USC interim head coach Clay Helton comments:

Opening statement:

The Trojans pride and family: “I am just really proud of our football team, proud for the Trojans family. We came into this game wanting make the Trojans family proud, and I can’t tell you how excited I am about the accomplishments they made.”

Defensive dominance: “(Defensive coordinator) Clancy Pendergast and the defense, to hold that offense to 254 yards when it averages 570 a game with a tremendous quarterback and receiving corps, is really something. We came into this game with a game plan to being ultra aggressive in all three phases of the game. It didn’t all work, but we wanted that mindset form the start.”

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen, Dalen Jones
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsBuck Allen had two touchdowns in USC's Las Vegas Bowl win.
The offensive line: “I was very nervous coming in about the amount of pressure they (Fresno State defense) bring on, especially when you have two back-up linemen playing. It was just an unbelievable job by the offensive line.”

Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter comments:

The evaluation: “Clearly early in the game we didn’t make enough plays to get into rhythm. Defensively, we didn’t make enough tackles. We have a lot of respect for USC. They’ve got really good players and they’re very well-coached and they played very inspired today.”

“Physically, they were the most impressive team we’ve played the last two years. They play inspired; they played very, very well. Early on we had a couple of opportunities on third down to get off the field, it could have changed the game and they converted. I think we were beaten by a better team.”

The Trojans defense: “They did a good job covering our receivers. It was a combination of things.”

More notes and anecdotes:

Key(s) to victory: Trojans sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler threw for four touchdowns and 243 yards in the first half as the Trojans won their 10th game of the season.

The thermometer: It was 55 degrees at kickoff in Sam Boyd Stadium.

The offensive above scoring average: The Trojans scored 45 points against Fresno State. Prior to the game with the Bulldogs, the Trojans were averaging 28.5 points per game.

Player of the Game, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler said, “We want this team to be remembered forever. Hopefully, the team and the players before us will be proud of us. Even though we won 10 games, we still lost four. Next year we want to go undefeated and win the Pac-12.”

The defense at scoring average: “It was a great game today and it is 100 percent due to the offensive line. They studied film all week and worked so hard. It is due to them and our receiver who are freak athletes. They make plays. That is why they come to SC. They get the ball and make plays. That is my job just to get the ball to them and let them make plays.”

Defensively average: The Trojans defense allowed 20 points to Fresno State. Prior to the Bulldogs, they were allowing 20.2 points per game.

Defensive evaluation: Junior safety Josh Shaw said, “My hat goes off to our front seven. I have been in college football for four years now and have had a different coordinator every year. Coach Pendergast is second to none.”

Offense above average: Prior to the Fresno State game, the Trojans were averaging 392.3 yards per game in total offense. Against the Bulldogs, the Trojans had 487 total yards on offense.

More Kessler: “This season speaks for itself. The guys bought into Coach O and his one heartbeat and one-team philosophy. I will talk with him later.”

Offensive MVP: The award went to sixth-year center Abe Markowitz. Receiving the award on the podium, his teammates started chanting, “Four more years, four more years.”

Defense stars: Prior to the Fresno State game, the Trojans were allowing an average of 341.5 total yards on defense. Against the Bulldogs, the Men of Troy allowed 254 total yards.

Power of 10: Regarding how important this 10th win was for the Trojans, All-American defensive tackle Leonard Williams said, “It was important to get this 10th win for Coach Orgeron. We have gone through so much adversity that this is really special.”

Below the rush: Prior to the Fresno State game, the Trojans were averaging 174.2 yards per game rushing. Against the Bulldogs, the Men of Troy rushed for 143 net yards.

The words of John: Trojans senior offensive guard John Martinez was especially introspective on the bowl victory. Martinez said, “Coming off the UCLA loss, this was our redemption. We played the way we are supposed to play. I am now satisfied with the season. We all are. ”

Rushing wall: Prior to the bowl, the Trojans defense was allowing 127.1 yards rushing per game. Against the Bulldogs, they allowed 37 net yards rushing.

Ejected: Standout defensive junior tackle George Uko was ejected in the first half for a second personal foul. Uko said, “Somebody had me by the shoulder and I sort of swayed my shoulder away and unfortunately is wasn’t another player but the ref. It was one of those things. I don’t go hitting other players and getting tossed out.”

Passing the test: Prior to the Fresno State game, the Trojans were averaging 218.1 passing yards per game. Against the Bulldogs, the Cardinal and Gold passed for 344 yards.

Tears of pride: With great emotion and tears in his eyes, senior starting offensive right tackle Kevin Graf said, “This win means a lot. Running the ball the way we did was amazing and to hold them to 20 points. I am proud of my team. I can’t believe it’s over. This last season has meant so much. The will to leave with a win meant a lot to all the seniors.”

Air contain: Prior to the Fresno State game, the Trojans were allowing 214.5 passing yards per game and allowed 217 passing yards to the Bulldogs.

The flag is up: Prior to the Fresno State game, the Trojans were averaging 54.6 penalty yards per game, but had 11 penalties for 98 yards in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Top tacklers: Corner Kevon Seymour, who was the Defensive Player of the Game, led the Trojans defense. Seymour recorded seven tackles.

Seymour speaks: “Coach Pete (Clancy Pendergast) told us it’s all about disruption. Disruption of the quarterback, disruption of the wide receivers. We had to get them out of their mindset, especially the receivers.”

Sark talk: Incoming Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian said, “I can’t wait to get with these guys. I want them to enjoy this win and stay out of the way. It was unique being up in the suites watching the team. I can’t wait to coach them.”

Second best: Game attendance was 42,178, which marks the second-largest crowd in Sam Boyd Stadium history and also the second-largest crowd in Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl history.

Next season: The Trojans open the 2014 season against Fresno State on Aug. 30 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl preview

December, 21, 2013

The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) features No. 20 Fresno State (11-1) against No. 25 USC (9-4). It’s one of just two pre-New Year’s Day bowls to feature a matchup of two ranked teams.

Who to watch: The Bulldogs feature the top-ranked passing offense in the country (409.8 yards per game) and a quarterback -- Derek Carr -- who is the national leader in passing yards (4,866) and touchdowns (48). Carr’s favorite target, wide receiver Davante Adams, leads the FBS in catches (122) and touchdowns (23). The Trojans led the Pac-12 with the fewest passing yards allowed per game (214.5) and will look to pressure Carr with a strong front that is led by outside linebacker Devon Kennard (9 sacks, 13 TFL) and defensive end Leonard Williams (6 sacks, 13.5 TFL).

What to watch: The USC offensive line will play with new starters at center and right guard after injuries to the regular starters against UCLA. That line will look to protect quarterback Cody Kessler and give him time to throw to a pair of dangerous receivers in Marqise Lee -- who is as healthy as he’s been all year -- and Nelson Agholor. Fresno State counters with a defense, led by linebacker Ejiro Ederaine, that tied for the national lead in sacks (3.25 per game), but it can be vulnerable in the secondary -- the Bulldogs rank No. 116 in the FBS by allowing 277.4 passing yards per game.

Why to watch: Both teams have something to prove. Fresno State came close to earning a BCS berth and a shot at an undefeated season before a shocking 62-52 loss to San Jose State in the regular-season finale. The Bulldogs would love to finish with a 12th win -- which would set a school record -- especially one that comes against a big-name opponent such as USC. The Trojans, on the other hand, have fought through a tumultuous season that has them playing under their third head coach. The rallying cry in the weeks leading up to the bowl game was the chance to reach 10 wins, an accomplishment that would mean a lot after all this team has gone through. And, as an aside, this game also will offer something of a preview for next year as these two teams will meet to open the 2014 season.

USC 42, Fresno State 40

Kessler, Trojans focused on win No. 10

December, 20, 2013
Cody Kessler promises this year will be different.

For those with last year’s Sun Bowl debacle still fresh in their heads, there might be some cause for concern as USC heads into Saturday’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State. Motivation, or lack thereof, doomed the Trojans in the 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech. It served as the final “haha” (in the voice of Nelson Muntz) moment for those whose cup was bubbling over with USC schadenfreude in 2012.

Not again, pledges the USC quarterback. Different team. Different chemistry. Different motivation.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMCody Kessler and the Trojans are on their third head coach this season, but they still have a chance for a 10-win season.
“Obviously last year wasn’t the season that we wanted,” said Kessler, who only appeared in one game last year and attempted two passes. “It was difficult to see where we finished compared to where we started. A lot of guys weren’t into that game. But this season speaks for itself. Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”

Consider Kessler during the first five games, when Lane Kiffin was still the head coach. He was completing 63 percent of his throws, averaging just 166.4 yards per game and had six touchdowns to four interceptions. His raw QBR was 39.9 and his adjusted QBR was 48.9.

Since Kiffin was relieved of his duties and Clay Helton has stepped in to run the team and the offense, there have been significant improvements. He’s completing 65 percent of his throws, his yards are up (223.8), his mistakes are down (10 touchdowns to two interceptions) and he’s a more efficient quarterback with a raw QBR of 61.8 and an adjusted rating of 70.3.

Part of it has been Helton. Part of it has been the fact that he’s got more experience. And part of it was just a change of scenery.

“We’ve had three head coaches in one season,” he says with a gotta-laugh-at-it-attitude. “That’s crazy. Coach Helton and I are very close. I’m closer to him than anyone else because he’s my position coach. I spend every day with him. We have that connection. I know what he’s thinking before he ever calls it.

“But a lot also comes from experience. Playing in tough games like Notre Dame and Oregon State really helped me move forward and feel comfortable. It was hard at first switching between starts because it’s tough to establish yourself as a leader. But once I got the job, things started to work out.”

He’s hopeful things will work out one more time with his friend Derek Carr on the other side of the field. Both from Bakersfield, Calif., Kessler and Carr used to train together, so they are friends and familiar with each other’s résumés. With 48 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and more than 4,800 yards passing this season, Carr’s résumé is a little more polished. But that’s not something that concerns Kessler.

“He’s a great guy and a great quarterback, but I don’t watch a ton of offensive film,” he said. “During the game I’ll be watching because it’s back and forth. If they score, I know we have to go out and score. I know Derek and I know they are capable of putting up a lot of points. Everyone in the country knows that. So we have to eliminate turnovers and finish in the end zone. You can’t settle for field goals against these guys.”

Of course, another major distraction that they’ve tried to make a non-distraction has been the presence of new head coach Steve Sarkisian. He replaces popular interim coach Ed Orgeron, who promptly left the program when he wasn’t promoted officially to head coach. So far, Kessler said he and his teammates have been fans of Sark’s hands-off approach.

“He’s been talking to us in team meetings, but we came so far with these coaches and he’s letting them finish it out,” Kessler said. “He’s watching and talking, but his main focus is us getting the 10th win and letting these guys finish it because there was so much time and effort on their part and they deserve it.

“I think he sees how far we’ve come as a family with these coaches and Sark respects that. I think that says a lot about him. Out of respect for those guys, he wants them to coach us to hopefully what will be that 10th win.”

New Mexico, Las Vegas Bowl predictions

December, 20, 2013
After correctly predicting a Stanford victory in the Pac-12 title game against Arizona State, Kevin took a one-game lead over Ted, as he stands at 75-17 and Ted is 74-18.

Nine bowl games to rule the season!


Kevin Gemmell: It has been a long drought for the Cougars -- more than a decade -- since they've been to a bowl game. Don't think they'll let this opportunity pass them by. Washington State should win, because it's the better football team, has a more dangerous offense, a more physical defense and the Cougars are far more battle-tested. They've won high-scoring games and low-scoring games. Plus the Pac-12 has dominated the Mountain West this year. A lot of times the Pac-12 team playing in the New Mexico Bowl feel slighted. That shouldn't be the case. I also like what I've seen out of Connor Halliday the last four games. He has done a much better job taking care of the ball, throwing for 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. In the first eight games he had 18 touchdowns and 17 picks. Washington State 41, Colorado State 28.

Ted Miller: There should be no question about focus and motivation for the Cougars. They've gone 6-6 against an infinitely tougher schedule than the one the Rams faced in going 7-6. And Colorado State ranks 100th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. That's not a good place to struggle when playing a Mike Leach team. The Cougs should roll and create momentum for a promising 2014 season. Washington State 45, Colorado State 20.


Kevin Gemmell: This is a scary game for the Trojans, no doubt. As noted in the New Mexico Bowl post above, the Pac-12 has been dominant over the Mountain West. But Fresno State's motivation is to show that it isn't just another Mountain West team. The Bulldogs are the Mountain West champs. Obviously, Derek Carr and Davante Adams are a significant threat. But the Trojans had the top pass defense in the conference. They've yielded only 18 touchdowns through the air, and quarterbacks are completing just 57.3 percent of their throws against the USC secondary, which has 16 picks. Plus, I doubt Fresno State has seen a pass rush like USC's. USC 31, Fresno State 28.

Ted Miller: USC is on its third head coach this season, with Steve Sarkisian waiting in the wings to become No. 4, and former offensive coordinator Clay Helton, the second interim coach, replaced the incredibly popular Ed Orgeron. The Trojans clearly were unhappy that Coach O is no longer around. Fresno State is very good on offense, with Carr particularly adept at getting rid of the ball quickly. Further, the Trojans' offensive line will be without two starters, including first-team All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin. Finally, I can't get the dismal 2012 Sun Bowl out of my head. Fresno State 35, USC 28.

A success to the power of 10

December, 19, 2013
LOS ANGELES – Because of the constantly rehashed circumstances that is their fate in a season that seems like four packed into one, the USC Trojans will be looking to end it with a perfect “10” against the Fresno State Bulldogs in the 2013 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday afternoon in Sam Boyd Stadium.

If you’re a movie aficionado, when you refer to “10,” there is this image of actor Dudley Moore entangled with jaw-dropping actress Bo Derek along with the hypnotic and sensual music of Maurice Ravel’s "Bolero" in the background. It was a comedy of sorts, but you never forgot the visuals and the musical score once you saw it on the big screen.

If the Trojans are victorious – and they are favored to do so – it would be bring this most scrutinized team its 10th victory of the season and would allow them to crow like Dudley Moore and finish a most unexpected season with a Bo Derek record. For all its trials and tribulations, a 10-win season would also be the 26th time a USC football team has reached such a celebrated plateau.

In the glorious history of USC football, more often than not, 10 victories is considered the minimum to be cardinal-and-gold acceptable. This team, despite its four losses and unusual circumstances, to say the least, will find itself with its own special identity.

As the Trojans prepare for Saturday’s early afternoon kickoff, it seems almost light years since the man with the trademark white visor, sunglasses and oversized play card – not so affectionately referred to as a giant Denny’s menu – was calling for bubble screens and a horizontal passing game to end all horizontal passing games.

[+] EnlargeDion Bailey
Chris Williams/Icon SMIDion Bailey and the Trojans can win a 10th game in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, a total that's a benchmark in school history.
Although Lane Kiffin probably should have been given his walking papers after the humiliating Hyundai Sun Bowl loss last New Year’s Eve to underdog Georgia Tech in El Paso, USC athletic director Pat Haden eventually pulled the plug in late September on one of the darkest coaching chapters in USC football history.


Junior safety Dion Bailey: “We’ve been playing with 30 players and 10 freshmen, so to get to 10 wins will be remarkable.”


Enter former interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who performed an incredible resuscitation of the football program after Kiffin’s early season dismissal. All “The Voice” did was completely turn around the team’s personality, give it direction and leadership, a sense of purpose, and an X’s and O’s philosophy that resulted in a 6-1 Pac-12 record the rest of the way, which included a huge upset of No. 5 Stanford.

Unfortunately for Orgeron, his sense of self-worth and his unification of Trojans nation from players to fans to media was upended when athletic director Haden gave “O” and his team a major awakening by hiring as the new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, the Washington Huskies head coach and a former Trojans assistant with Orgeron under Pete Carroll.

So incensed was the “one heartbeat and one family” Orgeron with Haden’s decision, he abruptly resigned, leaving a wake of tears and broken dreams among the Trojans players. Gone but not forgotten, Orgeron will still be in the hearts of the Trojans players taking the field this weekend.


Junior defensive tackle George Uko: “Ten wins would mean a lot, especially to go through what we’ve been through and to finish with double digits in victories. We’d like to win it for coach Orgeron.”


Enter second interim head coach Clay Helton, who had been given the play-calling duties by Orgeron, who instructed Helton to provide a power running game and spread the ball around. The results were stunning, as the Trojans offense came alive as the defense continued to dominate.

Now the folksy southern drawl of Helton and his easygoing personality has the biggest challenge of all, having to motivate the Trojans after the intense, motivational leadership of the strong-willed Orgeron.

This seasonal soap opera recently concluded with the hiring of Sarkisian, who will be in Las Vegas this weekend to view firsthand the nucleus of a team that he is on record as saying is of championship caliber.


Junior quarterback Cody Kessler: “Like coach Helton told us, there are only so many teams in college football that can get 10 wins, and if we do, we’re in an elite group.”


All of which brings us back to the goal of a 10-win season. Ask any of the current players and they have seemingly have bought into Helton’s mantra that 10 wins will forever make them immortal.

And that certainly wouldn’t have been predicted for a team that has had more than its allotted time in the proverbial barrel, but a 10-win season would be the type of closure that would even bring a smile to Bo Derek, the original “10.”

Markowitz fulfilling a 'dream' at USC

December, 17, 2013
The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl-bound Trojans got a taste of the glitz and glamour of the Strip following the team’s practice on Sunday, but it’s likely that Abe Markowitz never had a clue. Because while many of his teammates took part in a post-workout photo opportunity with a pair of showgirls, the 6-foot-1, 305-pound center/guard was off on the far side of the field getting some extra work in. By the time he made his way toward the exit, all of the commotion had long since ended.

“There’s practice and the set schedule of things we do in it every day, but if you have something to work on that isn’t in that schedule, you need to make the time and work on it,” Markowitz said. “Today, that’s what I was doing, and hopefully it helps the team out.”

[+] EnlargeAbe Markowitz
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesSixth-year senior OL Abe Markowitz, who will play his final game for USC in the Las Vegas Bowl, says "I just want to be remembered as a guy who chased his dream."
It’s that blue-collar, no-nonsense work ethic that has served Markowitz well in his long and winding career at USC, as he’s shown the consistent ability to step up for his team whenever he’s been called upon. And now, with Marcus Martin sidelined with a knee injury, the sixth-year senior will see his efforts pay off one last time when he lines up as the Trojans’ starting center against Fresno State on Dec. 21.

“I’m trying not to let my emotions get involved in anything,” said Markowitz, who will be making the third start of his career, and the first of 2013. “Every game this season, I’ve prepared like I was a starter -- that’s what you do here. That showed, unfortunately, in the UCLA game when Marcus got hurt, and I stepped right in and fulfilled my role for the team. So, this is just another week for me. Maybe in a couple of months when I’m done with my USC experience I can look back and see how special of an experience this was, but right now we’re all just locked in.”

The Honolulu Punahou product has certainly made his mark for the Trojans, but his career has been anything but conventional.

Markowitz, whose grandfather, Larry, also played football for the Trojans, and whose father, Barry, played across town at UCLA, chose to walk on at USC in 2008 despite holding scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan State and Miami (Ohio). Quickly making a name for himself on the practice field, he was awarded a scholarship in 2010. Ultimately missing that season as well as the next with foot injuries, Markowitz came back to enjoy an extremely productive 2012 campaign, registering two starts and serving a crucial function as a more-than-reliable reserve.

Originally informed following last season that the Trojans no longer had room for him due primarily to an issue involving scholarship limitations stemming from NCAA sanctions, he was close to landing at the University of Hawaii in the offseason before, in a surprise turn of events, he was eventually cleared to rejoin the team at USC in July after gaining a sixth year of eligibility. And while he would no longer be on scholarship, for Markowitz, who had developed deep roots at the university, the simple fact that he was able to remain a Trojan was what counted most

“I love this place and I’ve definitely enjoyed being here,” said Markowitz, who took out a loan to help pay for his final semester of college. “Just being in Southern California, the weather, the culture, my grandparents live here, and I just wanted to finish here.”

Markowitz’s return also afforded him the opportunity to realize a dream of playing in front of family and friends in his home state when the Trojans took on the Rainbow Warriors in Honolulu in this year’s opener. A contest in which he filled in at right guard for a significant portion of the game, it stands out as one of the highlights of his time at USC.

“I got to play a lot in front of my home fans there,” said Markowitz, who also participated as a shot putter and discus thrower on the USC track and field program. “My parents were there, old neighbors, people that had really helped me out in high school, and that was really big for me. That was a special thing that I wanted to do, and part of coming back was playing in that game in Hawaii.”

And now Markowitz, who is hoping to get a shot at the NFL, is on the cusp of finishing his USC career off in fitting style when the Trojans take on the Bulldogs in less than a week. And while he’s determined to do everything he can leading up to the contest to ensure that he’s prepared, when it comes to the long-term, it’s safe to say that his legacy is already set in stone.

“I just want to be remembered as a guy who chased his dream,” Markowitz said. “I’ve had my few opportunities, and this is my last one. I want kids to know that if they want to chase their dream of walking on some place, then they should do that, because as long as you have the work ethic, and you surround yourself with people that believe in your dream, you can achieve whatever you want.”
LOS ANGELES – The 2013 roller-coaster ride for No. 25 USC (9-4) will reach its conclusion Saturday when the Trojans take on No. 20 Fresno State (11-1) in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

USC will have its third head coach of the season -- interim coach Clay Helton, who will give way to Steve Sarkisian immediately following the contest – and the Trojans will need to fend off a talented Bulldogs squad that narrowly missed out on a BCS bowl.

Led by head coach Tim DeRuyter, the key to Fresno State’s success has been its prolific passing attack, spearheaded by quarterback Derek Carr, a projected top-10 pick in this May’s NFL draft.

Scoring: 45.3 points per game (No. 1 Mountain West, No. 5 overall)
Rushing: 162.7 yards per game (No. 9 MW, No. 70 overall)
Passing: 409.8 yards per game (No. 1 MW, No. 1 overall)
Total: 572.4 yards per game (No. 1 MW, No. 3 overall)

[+] EnlargeDerek Carr
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesFresno State QB Derek Carr, the brother of former No. 1 overall draft pick David Carr, is also a potential high draft pick.
Quarterback: No. 4 Derek Carr (6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Sr.)
Recently named as the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, Carr has been nothing less than stellar while leading the Bulldogs’ vaunted uptempo, spread attack. The brother of former Fresno State star David Carr, Derek has completed 70.1 percent of his passes for a nation-best marks of 4,866 yards and 48 touchdowns, with just seven interceptions.

Running back: No. 20 Josh Quezada (5-11, 214, Jr.), No. 33 Marteze Waller (5-11, 214, So.)
With the Bulldogs' passing game serving as the focal point of the offense, the running backs don’t necessarily put up big numbers, but both Quezada and Waller are efficient, each averaging more than five yards per carry. They also play an important role as receivers out of the backfield. Quezada has 48 receptions.

Wide receiver: No. 15 Davante Adams (6-2, 212, So.), No. 3 Josh Harper (6-1, 184, Jr.), No. 1 Isaiah Burse (6-1, 187, Sr.)
Carr has one of the nation’s most prolific wideouts at his disposal in Adams, who leads the FBS in both catches (122) and touchdown grabs (23), while ranking No. 2 in receiving yards (1,645). Harper, who is currently listed as questionable with a groin injury, has also gained more than 1,000 yards.

Tight end: No. 89 Marcel Jensen (6-6, 270, Sr.), No. 88 Jerin McClendon (6-8, 258, Jr.)
Jensen ranks No. 5 on the team with 24 receptions, and he’s a 2013 All-Mountain West second-team selection.

Offensive line: LT No. 72 Austin Wentworth (6-5, 306, Sr.), LG No. 60 Bo Bonnheim (6-2, 295, So.), C No. 56 Lars Bramer (6-5, 282, Sr.), RG No. 73 Cody Wichmann (6-6, 311, Jr.), RT No. 54 Justin Northern (6-5, 285, So.)
The Fresno State offensive line has done an outstanding job of protecting Carr, allowing an average of less than one sack per game. The sturdy Wentworth, who has started 42 games in his career, is the headliner at left tackle.

Scoring: 29.1 points per game (No. 4 MW, No. 80 overall)
Rushing: 147.7 yards per game (No. 3 MW, No. 40 overall)
Passing: 277.4 yards per game (No. 11 MW, No. 116 overall)
Total: 425.1 yards per game (No. 5 MW, No. 91 overall)

Defensive line: No. 98 Andy Jennings (6-2, 275, Sr.), No. 92 Tyeler Davison (6-2, 304, Jr.), No. 52 Nikko Motta (6-2, 279, Sr.)
Fresno State’s defensive unit hasn’t matched the overall success that the offense has enjoyed, but one thing the Bulldogs have done well is get after the quarterback, averaging 3.25 sacks per game, tied for first in the FBS. Davison & Co. have played a big part, tying up the line so that the linebackers are free to make plays.

Linebacker: No. 31 Ejiro Ederaine (6-3, 220, So.), No. 43 Karl Mickelsen (6-1, 229, Jr.), No. 17 Kyrie Wilson (6-2, 228, So.), No. 27 Donavon Lewis (6-2, 239, Jr.)
Ederaine, who lines up at outside linebacker, is the team’s most dangerous pass-rusher, racking up a team-best 10 sacks this season. Mickelsen paces the defense on the inside with 88 stops.

Safety: No. 13 Derron Smith (5-11, 200, Jr.), No. 28 Charles Washington (5-11, 200, So.)
The secondary, as a whole, has struggled tremendously in coverage, allowing 277.4 yards per game through the air. Still, Smith has managed to put together a strong junior campaign with 69 tackles and also has led the Mountain West with six interceptions.

Cornerback: No. 37 Jonathan Norton (5-6, 175, Sr.), No. 6 L.J. Jones (5-10, 201, Sr.)
The Fresno State cornerbacks have been exploited by opposing passing attacks throughout the season. Jones is slated as the starter on one side, but he hasn’t played in more than a month because of a knee injury, and he’s currently listed as questionable. If he’s unable to play, either Jamal Ellis (knee) would start if he’s healthy enough, or Washington will slide over from safety, as he did against Utah State, with Dalen Jones starting at safety.

Special Teams

Punter: No. 49 Garrett Swanson (6-1, 213, So.)
Swanson has performed solidly, averaging 42.8 yards per punt.

Kicker: No. 19 Colin McGuire (5-10, 183, Fr.)
McGuire has been up and down in 2013, going 11 for 16 on field goals and has just 15 touchbacks on 85 kickoffs. The Bulldogs rank No. 111 nationally in kick return defense (24.4 yards allowed per return).

Kick returner: No. 8 Da’Mari Scott (6-0, 199, Fr.)
As a team, Fresno State averages 18.8 yards per kickoff return, ninth in the Mountain West.

Punt returner: No. 1 Isaiah Burse (6-0, 179, Sr.)
Burse is a big-play threat who has taken two punts back for touchdowns, averaging 12.5 yards per return.

For the players making up USC’s current roster, the 2013 campaign has been a roller coaster ride. Their season has been filled with emotional highs and lows, losing one head coach after another, from Lane Kiffin, to Ed Orgeron, to Clay Helton – who will ultimately give way to the newly hired Steve Sarkisian following the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State on Dec. 21.

For junior safety Dion Bailey, the sudden departure of Orgeron on Dec. 2, hit him particularly hard.

[+] EnlargeDion Bailey
Chris Williams/Icon SMIDion Bailey leads the Trojans in interceptions this season.
Nonetheless, when the Trojans began bowl practice, the team was in noticeably high spirits, thanks in part to the leadership of veterans like Bailey.

“I’ve definitely taken on that role, but it’s been a lot easier with this group,” said Bailey, who has 58 tackles and a team-high five interceptions this fall. “This group has a lot better focus than a lot of teams that I’ve been a part of, so it wasn’t hard to refocus after all of the emotional whirlwinds we’ve been through the past couple of weeks. Everybody has been out here with a great attitude.”

And why not? After all, not only will the Trojans have a shot at 10 wins, but they will be doing so in a city that isn’t exactly dull by any stretch of the imagination.

“A lot of people think we’re not excited to go to Vegas, but who doesn’t want to go to Vegas?” Bailey said. “It’s going to be great. We’re going to have a blast doing what we do. We’re going to go out there and finish the season off right, and try to get this 10th win.”

But for Bailey, the game could prove to be especially significant. After a sturdy three-year starter with 219 career-tackles to his credit, he has the option to enter the NFL draft.

It’s a decision that Bailey revealed was still up in the air.

“I’m going to sit down and meet with my parents [Tuesday night], and we’re going to discuss some things, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have it figured out within this week,” Bailey said, “but I probably won’t announce anything until after the bowl game. I don’t want to be a distraction to the team and what we’re focused on.”

One person who is certain to have a special interest in the decision is Sarkisian. Bailey hasn’t had a chance to speak with the new head coach one-on-one just yet, but having been recruited by him as a standout Class of 2010 performer out of Lakewood (Calif.), he is familiar with him, and he’s optimistic about the new coach.

“That was my first scholarship offer -- to Washington -- out of high school, so I know Sark pretty well,” Bailey said. “He has a lot of energy, a lot of confidence, and he knows how to win. He’s been a part of our run here, so he definitely knows the formula.”

Despite the looming decision, Bailey has made a concerted effort not to lose sight of the task at hand. The Trojans will have their hands full in Vegas with a potent Fresno State offensive attack that is engineered by the nation’s No. 1 passer (4,866 yards) in Derek Carr.

“He’s a guy that has an unbelievable arm,” Bailey said. “It’s impressive the way he spins the ball, and he reads coverages. He finds the open man, and he’s having a great year, so we definitely have a great challenge ahead of us.”

But after having overcome so much already, it’s a test that Bailey and his teammates are more than eager to take on.

“To come away with a victory would be huge,” Bailey said. “I don’t think there’s a team in the history of college football that has been through as much as we’ve been through in my four years of being here. To go out here and get a big 10th win, we could walk out of that stadium with our heads held high and our chest poked out. It would be something to be very proud of.”

Bowl primer: Royal Purple Las Vegas

December, 11, 2013
We continue our look at each of the Pac-12’s opponents during the bowl season.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
Las Vegas, Dec. 21, 12:30 PT, ABC
USC (9-4) vs. Fresno State (11-1)

Fresno State Bulldogs

Coach: Tim DeRuyter (second year)
Record: 11-1, 7-1 Mountain West
Combined opponents’ record: 62-83 (.427)
Common opponents: Utah State. Fresno State beat Utah State 24-17 on Dec. 7, USC beat Utah State 17-14 on Sept. 21 (the final USC victory for Lane Kiffin). Fresno State was scheduled to play Colorado, but the game was canceled due to flooding in Boulder.
Leading passer: Derek Carr, 424-605 (70.1 percent) for 4,866 yards with 48 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Leading rusher: Josh Quezada, 153-787 (5.1 per carry), six touchdowns.
Leading receiver: Davante Adams, 122-1,645, 23 touchdowns.
Leading tackler: Karl Mickelsen, 88.

What to know: By now we all know that Fresno State was one bad defensive performance away from probably being a BCS buster. It was the San Jose State Spartans who did the busting when they knocked off the Bulldogs 62-52 last month.

Whenever a job is open in an AQ conference, DeRuyter’s name gets thrown out there. USC, meanwhile, has undergone a bit of a coaching change, if you hadn’t heard.

There wasn’t a lot of quality competition on Fresno State’s schedule, which is one of the reasons it never cracked the top 15. In fact, its only game against a team from an AQ conference was a 52-51 overtime win over Rutgers in the season opener. Then the Bulldogs played FCS Cal Poly and their game against Colorado was canceled.

A victory legitimizes everything they have done this year. A victory for USC means wounds are starting to heal.

Key matchup: Carr’s passing numbers are insane. And while we can argue the quality of the defenses he faced, he still has to throw it and someone still has to catch it. This sets up an intriguing showdown between Carr, his receivers and USC’s pass defense, which was No. 1 in the Pac-12 and holds opponents to 214.5 yards per game and quarterbacks to a 57.3 completion percentage. The Trojans have yielded only 18 touchdowns through the air and tied for second in the conference with 16 interceptions.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl

December, 8, 2013

USC Trojans (9-4) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (11-1)

Dec. 21, 3:30 p.m. ET, Las Vegas (ABC)

It's fair to say that probably no team in the nation dealt with more drama than USC this year. How many teams can say they've had four head coaches since August?

[+] EnlargeClay Helton
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsOffensive coordinator Clay Helton will step in as head coach for the Trojans in their bowl game.
Lane Kiffin started the season on one of the nation's hottest seats, and that seat melted at Arizona State during a 62-41 defeat that dropped the Trojans to 3-2 on the year and 0-2 in the Pac-12. Kiffin was fired at LAX by athletic director Pat Haden, and Ed Orgeron took over as interim coach. He beat Arizona in his debut, lost 14-10 at Notre Dame, then rolled off five consecutive victories.

At that point, many saw Orgeron as a serious candidate to take over the job full time. But his chances were doused when the Trojans were whipped 35-14 at home against archrival UCLA. When Haden told Orgeron he wouldn't get the job, he promptly resigned, and offensive coordinator Clay Helton will lead the Trojans in their bowl game.

On Dec. 2, news broke that Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, a former USC assistant under Pete Carroll, would be the Trojans’ next coach.

This was a far better team after Kiffin's termination, in large part because the offense got better with Helton calling plays instead of Kiffin. A unit that managed just seven points in a home loss to Washington State with Kiffin calling plays averaged 30 points per game during its 6-2 stretch under Orgeron.

The biggest win was a 20-17 takedown of then-No. 4 Stanford. But the Trojans’ biggest strength is defense. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast's unit ranked among the nation's top 25 in scoring, total and rushing defense.


[+] EnlargeDerek Carr
Marco Garcia/USA TODAY SportsDerek Carr has 48 TD passes and just seven interceptions in 2013.
Fresno State was just a couple of plays from an undefeated season and a BCS bowl berth, but a 62-52 loss at San Jose State -- the college football season's ultimate offensive barn burner -- ended those hopes. The Bulldogs therefore had to settle for a Mountain West Conference title and a Las Vegas Bowl berth opposite USC.

The story with the Bulldogs was offense, and the leader of that offense was one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Derek Carr, who led the nation with 405.5 yards passing per game, 39 yards more than anyone else. Carr threw for 4,866 yards and 48 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.

The Bulldogs still have something to prove in their bowl game because their pillow-soft scheduled was ridiculed most of the year. It featured an overtime win over Rutgers to open the season and victories over Boise State and Utah State that secured the conference crown. In terms of quality foes, that was about it.