Las Vegas Bowl 2013: USC Trojans vs. Fresno State Bulldogs Complete Game Preview
After a 9-4 effort on the season, the USC Trojans will clash with the 11-1 Fresno State Bulldogs in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21. The No. 20 Bulldogs experienced a very successful 2013 season, led by a potent offense and stellar quarterback play from Derek Carr.
The Bulldogs' chase of an undefeated season and a BCS bowl berth came to a screeching halt when the San Jose Spartans got the best of Fresno State, beating the Bulldogs 62-52 on Nov. 29. For USC, a tumultuous start to the season was rectified by the tremendous efforts of interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who led the Trojans to a 6-1 record in Pac-12 play, including a November win over then-No. 4 Stanford.
But all good things must come to an end, and athletic director Pat Haden's hiring of Steve Sarkisian as the new head coach in Troy over Orgeron—mere days after USC's 35-14 home loss to crosstown rival UCLA—kind of caused the Trojans to go out with a whimper more than a bang.
Both of these teams are looking for a little respect heading into 2014. Fresno State would love to knock the Trojans down a notch, while USC will be looking to pound the Bulldogs, showing that it is a better team than its record indicates.
USC and Fresno State have only faced each other twice in history, with 2005 being the last time. It was a thrilling tilt, memorable for many great plays but most specifically for Reggie Bush doing Reggie Bush-like things on the sideline. USC went on to win 50-42, and don't think Fresno State has forgotten about it.
There's a certain grudge-match element to this game, so we can expect the Las Vegas Bowl to be another entertaining matchup between the Trojans and Bulldogs. To add more intrigue to this game, these teams open their 2014 season facing each other.
A win in the Las Vegas Bowl for either team will certainly set the tone for things to come next year.
Before we get to the preview, here are the vitals:
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. PT
Place: Sam Boyd Stadium
Radio: Sports USA Media and the American Forces Radio Network
Spread: USC (-7), according to VegasInsider.com
USC Keys to Victory
For USC to win, it needs to play the game like it matters. The Trojans have a history of failing to show up during lesser bowls, like last season's abysmal 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. This year, USC will need to treat this contest with Fresno State as if everything is still riding on a win.
Orgeron proved that USC still has the talent—despite depth problems—to beat anybody. Though he will not be coaching them come Dec. 21, the Trojans need to play with that mentality.
As far as actual game play is concerned, USC will need to get its offense rolling early, since getting points on the board is sometimes a problem for this team (USC is ranked 68th in the nation in scoring). We know that the running game will be difficult for Fresno State to contain. We also know that the Trojans have had much success through the air with play-action passes, something they can exploit against Fresno State's weak passing defense.
On that note, third-down conversions are also especially important. USC ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in this category, and if the Trojans can't turn third downs into first downs, this game will get away from them quickly.
Defensively, containing Derek Carr and Davante Adams is of critical importance. These two provide a particularly menacing combination for the Trojans defense: a quarterback with a cannon for an arm and a wide receiver poised to make USC's secondary look foolish. The Trojans defensive line will have to keep Carr flustered all afternoon, preventing him from getting into a rhythm with his favorite target.
If USC does these things, it should be in good shape in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Fresno State Keys to Victory
The Fresno State Bulldogs, led by Tim DeRuyter, are coming off a 24-17 win over the Utah State Aggies, an effort that saw them win the Mountain West Conference. As a result, they will enter the Las Vegas Bowl hot, looking to notch a win over USC and avenge their loss in 2005.
Fresno State's ability to win will live and die by Derek Carr's performance.
The Bulldogs—a team with the top-ranked passing and fifth-ranked scoring offense in the country—haven't faced a defensive line as aggressive and disruptive as USC's is, which could pose a serious problem for Carr. If he can't get his feet set or if his offensive line fails to provide him adequate protection, he is going to be in trouble. Carr is about as mobile as a tree, so the Trojans won't have to worry about him doing damage with his legs.
Defensively, shutting down USC star running back Buck Allen will be essential to Fresno State having an edge in this game. Allen is a bruising back, forcing opponents to drag him down as he pushes for extra yards. Give him an inch, and he will make you pay for it, most likely in the form of a huge run to the house for a touchdown.
While dealing with that threat, the aerial assault of Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor will be a challenge for Fresno State, a team that gave up 577 and 404 yards in its past two games.
A passing defense that weak (118th in the country) will have Agholor and Lee salivating, no doubt.
If Fresno State can keep its own offense running while strangling USC's, the Bulldogs will have a good chance of being the victors in this bowl game.
USC Players to Watch
The sophomore wide receiver has had a great season this year and has been one of USC's most reliable playmakers. Agholor has 824 yards on 51 receptions and has found the end zone four times for the Trojans. Fresno State's defense has no answer for a wide receiver like Agholor, so expect him to eat—and eat well—in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Allen's transformation this season has been nothing short of amazing. From a running back buried on Lane Kiffin's depth chart to one of the Trojans' most dangerous offensive weapons, Allen has been a sight to see in 2013. In his past five games alone, he has 562 yards and 10 touchdowns. He doesn't quit because of a little contact, and his elusive running style makes him a real problem for opposing defenders.
Look for him to get USC's offense going against the Bulldogs and to have at least one of those breakout plays we have come to expect from him in 2013.
The Trojans defensive line
Like in other contests against great quarterbacks, USC's defense will be pressed to play perfectly. That begins with the guys up front, who have been excellent this season. They play fast and furious in the trenches and will need to get to Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr as often as possible to keep him from getting comfortable.
If the defensive line can do that, it takes some pressure off the secondary, a group that has been abused in all passing situations. Carr's favorite target, Davante Adams is going to be a huge problem for the Trojans secondary (ranked 32nd in the country), so the best way to neutralize him as a threat is to neutralize the guy who throws him the rock.
The redshirt sophomore has really grown up throughout the 2013 season, playing like a man in some of USC's biggest games. He's shown that he can step up in the pocket and take a lick if he has to, and also that he cam scramble a bit and make a play when things fall apart.
That said, he has also made a lot of rookie mistakes, like holding on to the ball for too long and taking sacks when he doesn't need to. Against Fresno State, Kessler will need to be a field general and avoid those costly mistakes that can be drive killers for the Trojans.
Fresno State Players to Watch
Carr has been that dude for Fresno State this season, powering the offense to its 11-1 record this season. In his career, he has 12,626 yards and 111 touchdowns, and 4,866 of those yards and 48 of those touchdowns came this year alone. He has a great arm, and very good field awareness and vision to feed the ball to his targets.
That said, Carr is as immobile as a statue. He's only been sacked 11 times on the season, however, but that's more of a testament to how good his offensive line is than to how well he can make plays under pressure. For the Bulldogs to contend with USC's menacing defense, Carr will need to get passes off quickly to avoid the pass rush. He hasn't faced a defense as stout as USC's, so having enough time to throw could be a problem for him.
The offense's productivity begins and ends with Carr, so how he handles this challenge will be something to watch in the Las Vegas Bowl.
This sophomore is the best wide receiver you may or may not have heard of in 2013. He has 122 catches for 1,645 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season and has been an absolute stud for Fresno State. He's averaged 13.5 yards per catch this season and will surely be a problem for USC's secondary. Even in the Bulldogs' loss to San Jose State, Adams still gobbled up 264 yards (long of 46) and three touchdowns from 13 catches.
Adams is that X-factor for Fresno State and the biggest threat to USC's ability to move the Bulldogs off the field. The matchup between him and Josh Shaw will be something to watch, and Shaw is USC's only cornerback capable of keeping up with him in this game.
What They Are Saying
Reign of Troy's Matthew Moreno writes about the conditions of the Las Vegas Bowl, which could be a trap game for USC:
USC has a history of failing to show up for what many may consider a lower-tier bowl game; last season’s debacle in El Paso, Texas serving as a prime example.
The Bulldogs however are not your prototypical lower-tier opponent.
The Las Vegas Sun discusses the success Fresno State had in 2013, despite falling short of BCS goals:
It wasn't a BCS run.
But Fresno State sure did make the most of this championship celebration.
Make that two in two years for coach Tim DeRuyter and quarterback Derek Carr — and that's a trend Fresno State loved to see continue, even if it meant not making a BCS bowl this season.
A year after winning a share of the Mountain West title, Fresno State captured its first outright crown since 1991 after defeating Utah State, 24-17, Saturday night before an announced crowd of 31,362 at Bulldog Stadium.
In the absence of former interim head coach Ed Orgeron, offensive coordinator Clay Helton will coach USC in the Las Vegas Bowl. Zac Ellis from Sports Illustrated writes about his trajectory throughout the 2013 season:
Helton is in his fourth season as USC quarterbacks coach and first as offensive coordinator. The Trojans are coming off a 9-4 regular season; following Lane Kiffin’s ouster in late September, they went 6-2 under interim coach Ed Orgeron.
USC wins 45-38
The Fresno State Bulldogs and USC Trojans couldn't have ended their respective seasons in a more opposite fashion. The Bulldogs won their conference and only suffered one loss, while the Trojans had a difficult season filled with exhilarating highs and debilitating lows. There's no doubt the Bulldogs have more momentum going into this contest, but the Trojans just might have the bigger chip on their shoulder.
USC has undergone a coaching carousel, and the emotional toll of that could weigh heavily on this team in the postseason. Then again, they could use that as just another reason to power past the Bulldogs and pull out a win.
They've underwhelmed greatly since their 2011 season, and after the tear they went on under Orgeron, USC really wants to prove that it is back. A win over a very good Fresno State team, en route to 10 total wins on the season, would help suggest that.
USC has a much better defense than Fresno State and stands more capable to disrupt the play of Derek Carr and Davante Adams than the Bulldogs do of containing Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen.
This, of course, is entirely contingent on USC showing up in the Las Vegas Bowl and playing this game like it means it.
There will be—in theory—lots of offensive highlights on both sides of the ball, so it will be the team that is able to create the most stops that can turn the tide in its favor. Because USC has the more capable defensive unit, reason suggests it should be the Trojans who come away with the victory and, with that, punctuate their 2013 campaign with a total of 10 wins.
If that happens, USC will emerge from the Las Vegas Bowl the victor, in what would be its first bowl win since the 2009 season.