Las Vegas, NV (SportsNetwork.com) - Clay Helton's reign as USC's head coach may be a brief one, but he was able to do what his two predecessors this season failed to accomplish -- win his final game.
With Cody Kessler tossing four first-half touchdown passes and the defense shutting down national passing leader Derek Carr for much of the day, the Trojans set a foundation for a promising new era with a dominating 45-20 victory over 21st-ranked Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
"Just really proud of our football team, proud for the Trojan family," Helton said. "We came into this game wanting to make the Trojan family proud and I can't tell you how excited I am about the accomplishments they made."
Kessler added a career-high 344 passing yards while hitting on 22-of-31 attempts to outshine the more-heralded Carr and end the Trojans' tumultuous season on a very high note. Marquis Lee and Nelson Agholor each hauled in two of the quarterback's scoring strikes, with Javorius Allen lending a pair of touchdowns on the ground in the rout.
USC (10-4) enters new head coach Steve Sarkisian's debut season having won seven of its final eight games and went 8-2 after Lane Kiffin's dismissal in late September. Much of that success came under Ed Orgeron, who left the program after being passed over for Sarkisian to elevate Helton from offensive coordinator for the bowl game.
Lee, playing in what's expected to be his final game before declaring for the NFL Draft, finished with 118 yards on seven catches.
Carr, meanwhile, managed just 217 yards and two touchdowns with an interception on 30-of-54 passing against the Trojans' airtight pass defense. The senior standout entered the matchup having put up 400 or more yards in four of his last five outings.
"I felt we were prepared, I thought the coach did a great job with the practices, the curfews - all those things," said Carr, the nation's leader in yards passing and total offense. "I thought our guys were ready to go. There wasn't any lack of focus on any side of the ball during practice. USC just beat us."
After making a case for a possible BCS bowl berth late in the season, Fresno State (11-2) dropped two of its last three games and was outclassed by the more athletic Trojans from virtually start-to-finish.
While Carr was often off the mark, Kessler was sharp right from the start. The improving sophomore made good on 5-of-6 throws -- including a 20-yard delivery to Darreus Rogers on 3rd-and-6 -- on the Trojans' initial drive, which was capped with a 10-yard connection to Lee that gave USC an early 7-0 edge.
The Trojans then caught Fresno State off guard with an onside kick that they recovered but was negated on a catch interference penalty, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the USC 33. Carr needed just three plays to reach the end zone, hitting Isaiah Burse on a slant route from eight yards out to make the score 7-6 after the point-after try was blocked.
That was as close as the Bulldogs would get, as Agholor blew past single coverage to pull down Kessler's deep pass for a 40-yard touchdown on the ensuing series and the Trojans locked down Fresno's potent offense over the remainder of the half.
Three straight touchdown drives in the second quarter widened USC's margin to 35-6 at the break, with Agholor snaring a 17-yard fade from Kessler to complete the first of those sequences, a nine-play, 65-yard march in which Helton rolled the dice and was rewarded when Allen came through with a 6-yard run on 4th-and-1 from the Trojans' 44-yard line.
The Bulldogs then gambled but lost, as a fake punt attempt resulted in an incompletion and USC took over at the opposing 30. Two plays later, Allen broke free for a 24-yard run for a 28-6 advantage midway through the second quarter.
Kessler moved the Trojans down the field with ease on their final trek of the half, which ended in touchdown pass No. 4 when Lee split the defense for a 40- yard score with 37 seconds left.
A fumbled punt by Agholor that the Bulldogs recovered in USC territory gave Fresno State some brief momentum early in the second half, with Carr converting the turnover into a 23-yard touchdown hookup with Davante Adams that pulled the Mountain West champs within 35-13.
Kessler used his legs to get the Trojans back in scoring range on the subsequent possession, coming through with a 17-yard scramble on 3rd-and-12 to set up Andre Heidari's 39-yard field goal with 6:44 left in the third quarter.
Carr was picked off by Josh Shaw in the end zone near the end of the period to hinder the Bulldogs' comeback attempt, though Fresno State's defense came up with a needed big play shortly afterward when Derron Smith intercepted Kessler's sideline throw and raced untouched for a 41-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 38-20 just 20 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Carr threw three straight incompletions on the Bulldogs' next drive, however, and USC put the game completely out of reach with a 12-play, 80-yard jaunt that consumed over seven minutes.
A 19-yard run by Allen gave USC a 1st-and-goal at the Fresno 1, and the sophomore back pulled in from a yard away two snaps later to cap the scoring.
Fresno State has now lost five straight bowl games and been outscored by a 128-47 margin in the last three. The Bulldogs dropped a 43-10 decision to SMU in last year's Hawaii Bowl and fell 40-17 to Northern Illinois in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl ... USC improved to 28-1-1 all-time against current Mountain West teams, with the lone loss coming to Fresno State in the 1992 Freedom Bowl ... Both schools were making their second Las Vegas Bowl appearance, with both previously losing to Utah (Fresno State in 1999, USC in 2001) ... Adams had 74 yards on nine catches, giving him a Mountain West-record 131 for the season ... Agholor finished with 94 yards on five grabs ... The two schools will also face one another in Los Angeles in the 2014 season opener for both.