USC can set the tone for the Steve Sarkisian era Saturday, even if the new Trojans head coach won't be leading the team in its Las Vegas Bowl matchup against Mountain West Conference champion Fresno State.
Saturday's postseason affair is an intriguing, if not odd, transitional step for USC football. Its opponent for the final game of the Lane Kiffin era is also the first when a new regime kicks off next August. Of course, the Fresno State that USC sees in Las Vegas is different than the version scheduled to visit the Coliseum in eight months, namely because of quarterback Derek Carr's presence.
The two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year and soon-to-be NFL draft pick Carr is one of the best quarterbacks USC’s defense will have seen in 2013. With Carr at the helm, Fresno State presents USC what Bleacher Report's Trenise Ferreira describes as a possible trap—and as she points out, that’s nothing new for the Trojans in bowl games.
That was particularly true in arguably the defining game of Kiffin’s tenure, a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the 2012 Sun Bowl. The offensive anemia and general malaise evident in player criticisms of the bowl game carried over into the lackluster first month of 2013.
There were plenty of excuses readily available for the Trojans' Sun Bowl loss: Matt Barkley was injured. The roster was thin. Weather conditions were far from ideal.
Likewise, USC has plenty of excuses should it lose Saturday, not least of which is that interim head coach Clay Helton is USC's third different leader in the past three months. But like his immediate predecessor, Ed Orgeron, Helton is using his uncertain future as a building block for the entire program's future, as he told to CoachingSearch.com:
It’s an extreme honor. Our staff is extremely honored and want to thank [athletic director Pat] Haden and Coach Sarkisian for giving us the honor to lead this team in this bowl game. We’ve been through a lot with these guys, and to have the opportunity to finish off with them just speaks volumes of Mr. Haden and Coach Sarkisian to let us do this.
Righting the course for Orgeron meant redefining the program’s attitude. However, Orgeron’s resignation after Sarkisian was named head coach could have very well complicated USC's preparation for the postseason.
His departure came on the heels of a tough loss to crosstown rival UCLA, the Trojans' first Pac-12 defeat since Kiffin's ouster in September.
Less than three months ago, Helton was an offensive coordinator without in-game play-calling duties. Helton’s tenure is exceptionally abbreviated, and he’s likely exiting the program at season’s end. But his stamp could be placed squarely on next year's promising Trojans with a strong showing in Sin City.
It means a lot more to this team the way we’ve come together. We have an opportunity to do something great. These guys have put so much into this team. It’s a big deal. Like Coach [Orgeron] said, there’s only 22 teams or something that already have 10 wins.
Kessler is among the Trojans returning for 2014 and a likely leader in Sarkisian's first season. By taking up that no excuses mentality now, he's laying the groundwork for the next campaign.
And in pursuit of win No. 10, Helton told Rich Hammond of The Orange County Register he's prepared to unleash everything USC has in its playbook.
Clay Helton, on aggressive Vegas Bowl playcalling: “I don’t think we will save one bullet in this game.”— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) December 15, 2013
"Remember this: How you react to adversity defines you," The Los Angeles Times reports Helton told his players in weekend practices.
To that end, USC has every motivation to win the Las Vegas Bowl and use it as a springboard into the new era.