The Las Vegas Bowl, an early postseason matinee slotting No. 25 USC against No. 20 Fresno State, is being colored a royal-purple marquee shootout. It's the nation's most prolific passing offense versus a Trojans roller coaster that is seeking to keep up with the Bulldogs aerial attack.
If USC aspires to avoid another Sun Bowl outcome, let alone cover their six-point spread, it need not worry about the air. So, gamblers, prepare yourselves for some "rushing roulette," for this game will be won on the ground.
There is still room in this day and age of college football for four-yard gains up the middle followed by a jet sweep for a touchdown. A commitment to running the ball keeps opposing defenses honest; a successful rushing attack will have those same defenses off-balance and keep opposing offenses—especially ones featuring high-flying aerial assaults—on the sidelines. It is not the lethal immediacy of blackjack, but rather the tedious demoralization of poker, and there's still a wealthy jackpot to be collected by viewers.
Fresno State may simply retreat to the repressed woes of Nov. 19, 2005 to recall such a strategy succeed:
Reggie Bush carried the title-bound Trojans on his back en route to a 50-42 victory. Bush rambled for 294 rushing and 519 all-purpose yards to set a Pac-10 record. (Legend suggests he gained so many yards that the conference added two more schools). An ill-advised Bulldogs defense encountered a beast with superior misdirection and transcendent athleticism, which gashed Fresno State with runs of 45, 50 and 65 yards. The performance was worthy of a Heisman Trophy (albeit briefly), and each three feet amassed was necessary to void the efforts of Fresno State offensive stars Paul Pinegar and Wendell Mathis.
The figurative celebration Bush hosted at his mother's house nullified the triumph, thanks to the receipt of gifts that ran afoul of NCAA rules. However, the memory lives on throughout the state of California. Fresno remembers it happened, and Los Angeles must recapture the essence of that singular performance eight years ago.
The current incarnation of the Trojans finally sport a platoon of healthy running backs—Silas Redd, Tre Madden, Ty Isaac and Javorius "Buck" Allen—that appears prime to burst out of their stable as a cohesive unit. From the eras of Joe McKnight to Curtis McNeal, no USC backfield has quite mirrored the durability and star power of Bush and LenDale White, either as a "Thunder and Lightning" tandem or on an individual basis.
There is the potential for that to change, but it has to show in Vegas.
Fresno State's fifth-best scoring offense (45.3 points per game) must keep open the throttle so as to compensate for the nation's No. 81 scoring defense (29.1). There's allowing points in garbage time, and then there's yielding at least 40 on three separate occasions and putting pressure on the Bulldog offense to keep scoring.
Teams are forced to throw on you when behind, so big passing numbers are to be anticipated. Yet the Bulldogs' defense surrendered an average of 147.7 rushing yards per game in 2013, suggesting it is susceptible to another breakout running back performance a la Reggie Bush.
Fresno's sole BCS-busting loss this year was in fact a shootout, coming at the hands of 6-6 San Jose State. The Spartans' commitment to handing the ball off (45 rushes for 159 yards) caused Fresno State to divide its attention, resulting in a brilliant stat line for San Jose State quarterback David Fales: 37-of-45, 547 YDS, 6 TDs, 0 INTs.
USC doesn't boast that same top-tier passing offense, so its ground attack will have to suffice and open up opportunities to push the ball downfield off play-action.
What running the ball will do for the Trojans first and foremost is secure the time-of-possession battle. It keeps Derek Carr off the field, rests Clancy Pendergast's relentless but thin front seven enough for them to continue to rack up big sack and turnover numbers and allows interim head coach Clay Helton to regulate tempo and impose his game plan. San Jose State controlled 39:23 of the clock in their upset win, which is nearly identical to how long USC kept the pigskin away from quarterback Sean Mannion in its 31-14 win over Oregon State.
Consequently, the Beavers failed to chomp on Javorius Allen, leaving them with "Buck" teeth:
Did that sideline juke look familiar? No, I did not post the same video twice. It's not Christmas on TBS just yet. That is how scary these young backs can be.
From Soma Vainuku throwing a monstrous block, to senior Silas Redd spelling Buck Allen's 133 yards and three touchdowns with 140 gritty yards himself, USC's running game indirectly thwarted the country's third-best aerial attack. With Tre Madden setting the tone in September with three consecutive outings topping the century mark, each member of this running back corps has cashed in when called upon, and now this rotation is as full and well-oiled as it has been all season.
In 2005, Bush often gave way to a thunderous White to devour the goal line (which he did twice against Fresno State that year) and alter the Trojans' pace and style. This current USC model features a hungry Redd in his last hurrah before graduating, the converted athleticism of former linebacker Madden, spry curveball Ty Isaac, an electrifying Allen and Stanley Havili 2.0 in Vainuku.
All Cody Kessler has to do is to arrive dressed and punctual and continue to avoid turnovers.
It was Madden and the defense that inexplicably sustained the Trojans with roughly 84 percent of the offensive output in their letdown versus Washington State (No. 4 passing offense) to inaugurate the 2013 season. Since Lane Kiffin and his quarterback controversy were relieved of their services, Kessler accepted the reins, Clay Helton assumed play-calling responsibilities and the growth of both men elevated Coach O's heartbeat.
Madden and company did not disappear, though. Their production set up play-action. Pressure on Kessler subsided substantially, not unlike how Bush reduced Matt Leinart's workload.
Yes, 2004's Heisman winner passed for only 200 yards in USC's 2005 bout with Fresno State. That's all he needed, because Bush ran the Bulldogs out of the stadium.
It's not exactly the sexy spread Steve Sarkisian and the NCAA prefer, but Fresno State should not underestimate USC's capacity and willingness to run this game into the San Andreas Fault. Persistent injuries along the offensive line—Aundrey Walker and Marcus Martin are the latest casualties, as Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times reports—will compromise the Trojans' protection, and motivation remains an issue in the face of the overhaul and BCS scholarship sanctions.
Nonetheless, everyone is auditioning for jobs in 2014. B/R's Trenise Ferreira indicates how "both of these teams are looking for a little respect heading into 2014," and USC should be rushing toward achieving momentum for the season-opening rematch.
Push Kessler 50 yards downfield, through the end zone and into next year if need be.