USC capped off a drama-filled year with an impressive 45-20 victory over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
Quarterback Cody Kessler led the way for the Trojans with 344 passing yards and four touchdowns, two apiece to Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.
Meanwhile, USC's defense was just as impressive, limiting highly regarded Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr to only 217 passing yards on 54 attempts.
According to ESPN's Joe Schad, that's the opposite effect Carr was going for before the game:
Fresno QB Derek Carr: "They're 5 Star recruits. We're 1 star recruits. Let's go out and dog these dudes."— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) December 21, 2013
Still, the story of the game was the energy level of USC. This was certainly one of the bigger question marks coming into the day with the head coaching situation in a state of flux.
Ed Orgeron took over as head coach after USC fired Lane Kiffin in the middle of the season. However, the school passed him over for the permanent job in favor of Washington's Steve Sarkisian. Orgeron decided to resign, leaving offensive coordinator Clay Helton to become the "interim interim" coach for the bowl game.
Despite this confusion at the top, the players responded well with a lot of excitement throughout the game, which many observers noticed:
I don't want to beat a dead Trojan Horse, but the energy and focus of this #USC team is amazing compared with them under Lane Kiffin.— robert smith (@ESPNRobertSmith) December 21, 2013
USC's "just have fun" motto clearly hasn't changed even though Orgeron is gone.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 21, 2013
The strong showing started right away for USC, as the squad moved right down the field on the first drive, scoring a touchdown on its 12th play. However, Fresno State answered quickly after a failed onside kick attempt by the Trojans, moving 33 yards in three plays and scoring on a touchdown throw from Carr to Isaiah Burse.
After a missed extra-point attempt, the score was 7-6 in favor of the Trojans. This was the closest Fresno State would be all game.
On the next drive, Kessler found a wide-open Agholor for a 40-yard touchdown. That same combo connected again in the second quarter on an amazing catch by the sophomore receiver.
USC continued to pile it on before halftime with a 24-yard touchdown run by Javorius Allen. Lee then scored his second touchdown of the game with this 40-yard catch and run into the end zone, making it 35-6 at intermission.
Things certainly didn't go as smoothly for the Trojans in the second half. Agholor fumbled the first punt of the half, which led to Fresno State's second touchdown of the game on a nice catch by receiver Davante Adams.
This caused some frustration for USC players:
USC DE George Uko was ejected from the game for bumping a referee.— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 21, 2013
In the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs then cut the score to 38-20 on an interception return for a touchdown by Derron Smith.
This play certainly energized the Fresno State sideline, and it led to a competitive fourth quarter. However, USC extinguished the excitement with a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that lasted over seven minutes.
Allen capped the drive with his second score of the day, giving the Trojans an insurmountable 45-20 lead.
The win moves USC to 10-4 on the season, only its second 10-win season since 2008. Fresno State dropped to 11-2 after a 10-0 start.
Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated reminds us how close we came to seeing Fresno State's porous defense taking on an even more explosive opponent:
Remember as of a few weeks ago this Fresno State defense was going to face Baylor.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 21, 2013
Former Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley congratulated his alma mater after the game:
Interestingly, this is also the fifth bowl-game loss in a row for the Bulldogs.
Still, each team should be proud of a solid 2013 season. Now they can look forward to the start of 2014, when Fresno State and USC face each other again in Week 1.
Marqise Lee/Nelson Agholor, WR, USC: A+
While Kessler racked up the stats at quarterback, most of it was due to the outstanding play of these two receivers. They made great catches and had long runs after the catch, combining for 12 catches, 212 yards and four touchdowns.
Arash Markazi of ESPN noted that Lee will likely move on to the NFL after this game:
Marqise Lee is having a good time in what is likely his last game at USC. Dancing and hugging teammates after his TD.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 21, 2013
However, Agholor will be back after a breakout sophomore season. With his strong showing against Fresno State, he could be a star in 2014 for the Trojans.
The attention now turns to Lee's future. Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News provides info on when he'll announce whether or not he'll be heading to the NFL:
Marqise Lee said he will decide future in next 2 weeks #USC— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) December 22, 2013
Clay Helton, Head Coach, USC: A
As previously noted, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the USC head coaching position. Clay Helton kept the squad together during the long break and got the team as prepared as possible for the bowl game.
Most importantly, the players seemed to be having fun on the field, and it led to better play.
Per Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that USC will retain Helton as offensive coordinator next season:
Based on the job he has done with this offense, including with Kessler, this is a smart decision for incoming coach Steve Sarkisian.
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State: C
Coming into the game as a potential first-round NFL draft pick, Derek Carr certainly left a lot to be desired against USC. He completed only 29 of his 54 passes and threw one interception in the end zone.
Adam Caplan of ESPN also provided his technical analysis of Carr:
While Fresno St. QB Derek Carr will be a first-round pick, he has issues with footwork. Shuffles feet when he throws. Causes ball to float.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) December 21, 2013
Carr put up huge numbers against inferior competition this season, but this was his chance to showcase his ability against a quality opponent. He simply did not do that in the bowl game.
Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State: A-
Although Carr had a below-average showing, Davante Adams performed well when the ball came his way. He totaled nine receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown against tough coverage.
His touchdown came on an impressive leaping grab over his defender in the end zone.
The sophomore led the nation in catches and touchdowns while finishing the regular season second in receiving yards behind Brandin Cooks of Oregon State. He has shown that he is a big-time prospect in his own right, regardless of who is throwing him the ball.
This is the last game of the season for both teams, but there are a lot of question marks going forward. USC has to deal with a coaching change and a number of players leaving for the NFL. Meanwhile, Fresno State must replace senior quarterback Derek Carr.
Neither offseason will be easy, but USC will certainly have a little more momentum after winning the Las Vegas Bowl.
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