Fresno State and USC are separated by less than 300 miles, but the two California programs have met only twice on the gridiron. That number will change on Saturday, as the Bulldogs and Trojans are set to kickoff the first weekend of bowl action with a matchup in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Fresno State was on the doorstep of playing in a BCS bowl, but the Bulldogs lost a 62-52 shootout to San Jose State on Nov. 29, knocking Tim DeRuyter’s team out of contention for one of college football’s premier postseason destinations. But all was not lost for Fresno State, as the Bulldogs won 11 games for the first time in school history since an 11-3 record in 2001. And thanks to a 24-17 win over Utah State on Dec. 7, Fresno State claimed its first outright conference title since 1989.
While 2013 was mostly a good year for Fresno State, this season was a roller-coaster ride for USC. The Trojans started 3-2, and after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State, Lane Kiffin was fired as the team’s head coach. Ed Orgeron was promoted to the top spot, guiding USC to a 6-2 finish and a third-place finish in the Pac-12 South. Orgeron was not promoted to the full-time gig and chose to leave Los Angeles after Steve Sarkisian was hired from Washington. Sarkisian won’t take over until after the bowl game, leaving offensive coordinator Clay Helton as the interim coach.
Fresno State and USC have split the all-time series, with the Bulldogs winning in 1992 and the Trojans claiming a victory in 2005. Fresno State is 0-4 in its last four bowl appearances, but it has won its last four postseason games against BCS foes. Last year’s loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl snapped a four-game winning streak for USC in bowl games. The last time the Trojans played in the Las Vegas Bowl, they were defeated 10-6 by Utah.
Fresno State vs. USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: USC -6.5
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: Stop USC’s rushing offense
During USC’s 6-2 finish under Ed Orgeron, the rushing attack seemed to find its stride. The Trojans averaged 173.8 rushing yards per game over their final six victories and recorded at least 240 yards on the ground in three out of the last five games. Depth in the backfield is a little thin due to injuries, as Silas Redd and Tre Madden are questionable to play. With Redd and Madden likely sidelined, Javorius Allen and Ty Isaac will become the go-to backs against Fresno State. The Bulldogs held up relatively well on the ground this year, limiting opponents to 147.7 yards per game. As evidenced by its 98 tackles for loss, Fresno State’s defense is active around the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Ejiro Ederaine leads the team with 15.5 tackles for a loss, while safety Derron Smith (69 tackles, 6 INTs) is another playmaker to watch. USC’s passing attack (10th in the Pac-12) isn’t quite as effective as its ground game, but quarterback Cody Kessler has not thrown an interception over his last four games. If the ground game gets on track, Kessler should be able to take advantage of Fresno State’s secondary and connect with Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor on big plays downfield. The Bulldogs need to make USC one-dimensional and force other receivers outside of Lee and Agholor to step up.
USC’s Key to Victory: Get pressure on Derek Carr and minimize the big plays
Fresno State’s offense has been lethal all season. Only two defenses (Cal Poly and San Diego State) managed to hold the Bulldogs under 400 yards. Behind quarterback Derek Carr and an excellent group of receivers, Fresno State is averaging 6.7 yards per play. Although Orgeron isn’t coaching the team, coordinator Clancy Pendergast is calling the plays in the Las Vegas Bowl, and he was a key reason why USC’s defense improved to No. 2 in the Pac-12 in yards allowed this year. The Trojans are loaded with talent on defense, starting in the trenches with sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams (13.5 TFL, 6 sacks), and continuing into the back seven with linebacker Hayes Pullard (89 tackles) and safety Dion Bailey (5 INTs). Each level of the defense has an All-Pac-12 performer, with Williams taking home Athlon Sports third-team All-America honors this year. Fresno State’s offensive line has allowed only 11 sacks in 2013, but USC’s defense is easily the toughest unit it has faced. The Trojans have registered 34 sacks through 13 games and held opponents to just five yards per play. USC’s secondary ranks 21st nationally in efficiency defense, and this group will be under the microscope on Saturday, with Fresno State having three receivers with at least 79 catches. Getting pressure on Carr is critical to slowing down the Bulldogs’ passing attack. Even if the Trojans don’t record a lot of sacks, just disrupting the timing of Fresno State’s offense will have a huge impact on this game.
Key Player: Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State
We could mention a couple of players here, including Fresno State left tackle Austin Wentworth or USC quarterback Cody Kessler. But let’s highlight Adams, who did not get enough credit nationally for his 2013 season. Adams led the nation with 122 receptions, averaged 13.5 yards per catch and caught 23 touchdowns. The sophomore is clearly Derek Carr’s go-to receiver, and he could be counted on even more if Josh Harper is unable to play due to a groin injury. USC has not allowed a team to throw for more than 300 yards in its last seven games. Can Fresno State change that on Saturday? If the line protects Carr, Adams will have a chance for his fourth consecutive 100-yard game.
Motivation is a key factor in every bowl. USC didn’t seem interested to be in the Sun Bowl last year – will 2013 be any different? The Trojans are now on their third head coach, and the staff is shorthanded with Orgeron and line coach Peter Jenkins leaving the team after the regular season. Talent isn’t an issue for USC, but the motivation is clearly on Fresno State’s sideline. This is the final game for quarterback Derek Carr, and receiver Davante Adams could declare early for the NFL Draft. And if Carr has a huge game against the Trojans, his draft stock will only continue to climb before pre-draft workouts. If USC is motivated to play, the Trojans will win this game. However, the guess here is USC isn’t as interested in this bowl as Fresno State, and the Bulldogs pull a slight upset in Las Vegas.
Prediction: Fresno State 31, USC 27