By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: A tumultuous 2013 campaign draws to a close for USC on Saturday afternoon, as the Trojans line up against another program from the Golden State, the 21st-ranked Fresno State Bulldogs, in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The once-proud Trojans have had a few down years by their standards, even going so far as to fire head coach Lane Kiffin at the end of September after the team was blasted by Arizona State in a 62-41 final. Athletic Director Pat Haden buckled under the public pressure and ousted Kiffin in favor of interim head coach Ed Orgeron who was eventually named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Club's Coach Of The Year.
However, even after Orgeron guided the program to six wins in the next seven games, a record of 9-4 overall during the regular season, he was passed over for the permanent head coaching position with USC in favor of Washington's Steve Sarkisian, announced less than three weeks ago. While Sarkisian is set to lead the Trojans into the next era of football, he will not be on the sidelines against Fresno State, instead it will be interim head coach Clay Helton.
"We are extremely excited to have been invited to participate in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl," said Helton after the team accepted the bowl bid. "It is a tremendous honor and a great reward to our team and what they have been able to accomplish in the 2013 season. We look forward to our trip to Las Vegas and the challenge of competing against one of the better teams in the country in Fresno State."
While the Trojans have dealt with a series of ups-and-downs in 2013, the Bulldogs have experienced highs almost exclusively. Under head coach Tim DeRuyter the team threatened to be the latest program to bust the BCS as it ran out to a perfect 10-0 mark, posting wild offensive numbers along the way. However, in the final regular-season game near the end of November the Bulldogs met their match at San Jose State, bowing to the Spartans in a 62-52 final.
The devastating loss took FSU out of the running for a potential BCS appearance as their 15-game, regular-season win streak came to an end.
"It hurts tremendously. Our guys each week I thought were prepared and I thought went into this one with a great game plan," DeRuyter said of the loss. "You got to hand it to San Jose State, we got some things to work on, but it hurts for the fact that it was in our grasp but we let it go."
The Bulldogs were able to bounce back the following week in order to take down Utah State in the first-ever Mountain West Conference Championship game, 24-17, but still the team has to wonder about what could have been.
In terms of a bowl history, the Bulldogs have a record of 11-13 dating back to a 27-26 win over Arkansas State in the Little All-American Bowl on Christmas Day back in 1937. More recently, Fresno State was blown away by SMU in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl, 43-10, marking the team's fourth straight postseason setback.
A staple in the postseason dating back to the 1923 Rose Bowl versus Penn State, the Trojans have the second-most bowl victories (31) in college football history behind only Alabama (34) after both programs surrendered one win due to NCAA sanctions.
As far as the relationship between these two teams is concerned, the series is split 1-1, the most recent matchup being a 52-42 victory for then top-ranked USC in 2005. However, that victory for the Trojans had to be vacated due to NCAA penalty. The good news for the Bulldogs is that their lone win came in the 1992 Freedom Bowl by a score of 24-7.
The Fresno State offense, one that ranks fifth in the country in scoring with 45.3 ppg, is driven by Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year Derek Carr. The younger brother of former top NFL Draft pick David, Carr was named the 2013 Sammy Baugh Award winner as the nation's top passer as he led the country in total offense (4,983), total passing yards (4,866), passing yards per game (405.5),and passing TDs (48).
Carr, who has thrown at least one TD in 32 consecutive games, registered eight games this season with at least 400 yards through the air and is now one of 19 quarterbacks in FBS history to throw for over 10,000 career yards and 100 TDs. The signal caller needs 134 yards passing and two TD passes to become the fourth quarterback in FBS history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season and have 50 or more touchdown passes.
Helping to get Carr to those lofty goals will be Davante Adams who led the FBS in TD catches with 23, eight more than any other player and as many or more than 87 of the 123 teams at the FBS level. Adams leads the FBS in receptions per game (10.2) and total receptions (122), while ranking second in receiving yards per game (137.1) and total receiving yards (1,645, a new school record).
While Adams may grab the majority of Carr's passes as well as headlines, the USC secondary has to be careful not to forget about Isaiah Burse and Josh Harper, who registered 94 and 79 catches, respectively, amounting to a combined 1,998 yards and another 18 TDs.
The ground game for FSU also took some of the pressure off Carr, as Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller accounted for more than 1,400 yards and 13 TDs as both averaged better than five yards per carry.
From a defensive standpoint, Derron Smith was named First-Team All-MWC after placing third on the unit with 69 total tackles and leading the program with six interceptions. The unit had five players with at least seven TFL, the leader in that department being Ejiro Ederaine who topped out with 15.5 and also led the squad with 10 sacks.
At the start of the season coach Kiffin wasn't sure who his primary quarterback would be, but eventually Cody Kessler stepped into the position and played quite well. Kessler converted 64.7 percent of his passes for 201.8 ypg and 16 touchdowns, limiting his mistakes to just six interceptions on 331 attempts.
Marqise Lee was supposed to be one of the top receivers in the country and finished with 50 catches for 673 yards, but just two touchdowns as he dealt with injury. Instead, the go-to guy for Kessler became Nelson Agholor who turned his 51 receptions into 824 yards and four scores.
Injuries have also taken a toll on USC ball carriers this season as well. While nothing is confirmed, it appears as though Silas Redd will likely sit out this final contest due to a knee injury that is more serious than originally thought. Redd appeared in just six games and scored only one TD, so really it was Javorius Allen and Tre Madden who carried most of the load on the ground, the former averaging 6.5 yards per carry en route to 12 TDs.
Stopping the run, the Trojans were one of the best in the Pac-12 this season and ranked 19th in the nation with just 127.1 ypg allowed. Because of that effort the entire defense permitted only 341.5 ypg, ranking 16th in the country.
Devon Kennard and Leonard Williams both finished with 13.5 TFL and in the top- four in total stops. Kennard also logged a team-best nine sacks, followed by Williams with six. While the pair was forcing the pressure at the line of scrimmage, Dion Bailey and Su'A Cravens were protecting the secondary with five and four interceptions, respectively.
Against a household name like USC, Carr could certainly raise his profile on a national level, but he has to be careful not to forget that the players on the other side are some of the best the country has to offer. Granted, the Trojans had a rocky season, but that doesn't mean they won't be ready to play come Saturday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: USC 34, Fresno State 27
12/18 11:08:15 ET
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