Preview Fresno St. at USC
GAME NOTES: A new era of football begins at USC this weekend, as the 15th- ranked Trojans take their directions from new head coach Steve Sarkisian as they play host to the Fresno State Bulldogs.
The eighth-youngest head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, Sarkisian was most recently the head coach at Washington, a foe of the Trojans in the Pac-12 Conference. He took a team that had won just 12 total games in the five seasons prior to his arrival in 2009, and ended up guiding the Huskies to an 8-5 record a season ago, the most victories for the squad since 2000.
More than familiar with the Trojans, Sarkisian started out as the quarterbacks coach with USC in 2001, returned to reprise that role a few years later, and eventually became the assistant head coach before moving north to Washington. Sarkisian actually landed at USC out of high school, hoping to make an impact as a baseball player.
"I feel so honored to be part of the Trojan Family," Sarkisian said during his introductory press conference. "We will continue to earn their support and our loyal fan base will make them proud to be Trojans."
As for the Bulldogs, a team which now hails from the Mountain West Conference after spending several years in the Western Athletic, they are under the direction of third-year head coach Tim DeRuyter. Opening on the road for the first time under DeRuyter, the Bulldogs have experienced much success in his two years, thanks in large part to quarterback Derek Carr, but he is no longer in the picture.
Last season, the Bulldogs rolled to an 11-2 record overall, winning 10 straight games out of the gate, leading to a top-25 ranking from the Associated Press. Unfortunately, FSU failed to make an impact on the BCS when it lost to San Jose State (62-52) in a wild shootout during the regular-season finale.
The Bulldogs did regain some momentum with a 24-17 victory over Utah State in the first Mountain West Conference Championship Game, but eventually fell hard to this same USC group in the Las Vegas Bowl, 45-20.
With the loss at Sam Boyd Stadium in December, the Bulldogs fell behind in the all-time series against USC by a count of 2-1.
DeRuyter had five quarterbacks competing for the job during spring practice but now it appears as though he has narrowed the field to either Brian Burrell or Brandon Connette, according to the most recent depth chart.
"I feel like we have some good dudes back there and we're not expecting them to come in and be Derek Carr," said wide receiver Josh Harper during spring practice. "They are themselves and however they are going to make us successful, that's how we want them to be."
Burrell appeared in five games as the backup to Carr last season and also led Bakersfield Junior College to the CCCAA State Championship with 11-2 record in 2012.
Connette is a graduate transfer from Duke, who in 39 games set that school's record with 31 rushing touchdowns.
Harper, a Biletnikoff Award candidate, has notched 22 TD catches in 27 career games. He is among the all-time leaders at Fresno State in receptions (138), TDs and 100-yard games (six).
Some more positive news has the top two ground gainers from a year ago returning in Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller. Quezada led the way with 829 yards on 155 carries and scored six times on the ground, but it was Waller who turned his 124 attempts into seven TDs and averaged a solid 5.2 yards per carry.
On defense, FSU has the luxury of bringing back free safety Derron Smith, one of the top players at his position nationally. Not only was Smith picked for the preseason All-MWC First Team, he was also chosen as the preseason MWC Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season. A two-time All- MWC First Team selection, Smith was the MVP of the inaugural MWC Championship Game after posting a sack and an interception against Utah State.
Smith, who stepped up with seven interceptions a year ago, will gain plenty of support from returning stars in Karl Mickelsen (97 tackles) and Ejiro Ederaine (16 tackles for loss and 10 sacks).
For USC, which has won the last 15 season openers, it brings back as many as 18 starters from a year ago, including Leonard Williams, Nelson Agholor and Su'a Cravens, each of whom has been selected a preseason All-American. But the key to the offense for the Trojans or any other program, is at quarterback and this squad has Cody Kessler coming back.
Kessler converted 65.4 percent of his passes for almost 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, thanks in part to Agholor who was second on the unit with 56 catches for 918 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games. Agholor generally played in the shadow of Marqise Lee, but now he has the spotlight almost exclusively to himself.
Tailback Javorius Allen is back after pacing the program with 785 yards and 14 touchdowns on 135 rushing attempts.
The USC defense took a major hit on Monday when it was announced that Josh Shaw, the starting cornerback and team captain, would be out indefinitely due to suffering a pair of high ankle sprains when he allegedly jumped from a second-floor balcony to help save his nephew who was struggling in a nearby pool.
"I would do it again for whatever kid it was, it did not have to be my nephew," Shaw told USC's website. "My ankles really hurt, but I am lucky to be surrounded by the best trainers and doctors in the world. I am taking my rehab one day at a time, and I hope to be back on the field as soon as possible."
Unfortunately, by Tuesday the validity of the story surrounding the injury was being questioned, but however it plays out, the fact is Shaw will probably not play this weekend.
Regardless of Shaw's status, the Trojans still have Williams to lean on after he placed second on the unit in tackles with 74 and tied for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss.
As long as the Shaw story doesn't become a distraction for the Trojans, they still have more than enough offensive firepower to take down Fresno State just as they did nine months ago.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: USC 38, Fresno State 17