Playing for the final time this season in what has been anything but an ordinary season, the No. 25 USC Trojans came out with passion, determination and swagger in a 45-20 pounding of No. 21 Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
The Trojans dominated during the first and only game under interim head coach Clay Helton. From the very first offensive drive, which went 65 yards on 12 plays, all the way to the final horn, the Trojans' offense set the tempo from start to finish.
While the offense may have broken more records on the day, USC's defense put on the ultimate display slowing down Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year Derek Carr by limiting him to only 217 yards passing on 54 passing attempts, tying the Las Vegas Bowl all-time record.
-FIRST HALF HEADLINES-
KESSLER STRONG FIRST HALF
In the battle of Bakersfield quarterbacks, Cody Kessler came out strong from the very start and finished the first half going 14-18 passing for 243 yards passing, including four touchdown passes (a season high) split between Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee en route to his Las Vegas Bowl MVP performance.
The confidence especially came out on third downs where Kessler was solid all afternoon long. It began on the very first third-down conversion where Kessler escaped pressure from up the middle, bought some time with his feet and found the streaking Darreus Rogers over the middle for a 20 yard pickup.
LEE RETURNS TO FORM
Marqise Lee returned to the fold as a major contributor on offense, notching two touchdown passes alone in the first half matching his total from the entire season to that point.
Lee used his mobility and elusiveness to find holes in the Bulldogs secondary, which allowed over 277 yards passing per game coming into the Las Vegas Bowl, providing Kessler a trustworthy security blanket over the middle.
CARR SLOWED DOWN
Entering the game averaging a Division I best 400-plus yards passing per game, the Bulldogs struggled to find any degree of success in the opening half throwing for only 125 yards on 18 completions. Carr looked great on the opening drive leading his team right down the field for a quick touchdown by leaning on All-Mountain-West performer Davante Adams, but it was the only highlight of the first half for Fresno State.
-SECOND HALF ATTACK-
HEIDARI STAYS THE COURSE
It may seem nonessential based on the final score, but when Andre Heidari connected from 39 yards out late in the third quarter, the Trojans were granted a major boost of confidence and the final dagger on the Bulldogs' comeback hopes.
This made kick also helps the off-season confidence for Heidari, who finished the regular season 14-of-21 on field goal attempts and certainly needed to right the ship heading into an uncertain offseason for all position groups as special teams coach John Baxter could potentially be heading toward an academic position on staff next season.
Not only was Heidari vocal with his boot, his sideline antics could be seen and heard all throughout Sam Boyd Stadium. Whether he was dancing on the field during commercial breaks or booing on poor penalty calls to the USC section, Heidari remained true to his inner personality from the opening kickoff through the final whistle.
BEND BUT DON'T BREAK
While Derek Carr continued to return to form, the USC defense did not waver in its full-ditched efforts to limit Fresno State's offensive prowess. The best example came at the end of the third quarter when Josh Shaw intercepted Carr in the end zone (making up for a previous blunder on the drive) keeping the game a 25-pt differential.
The biggest bend may have come following a pick-six from Cody Kessler, delivered to defensive captain and first-team Mountain West selection Derron Smith. A punt on USC's subsequent drive gave Fresno State the football at USC's 48-yard-line trailing by 18 points, which was no comfortable lead given Washington State's debacle earlier in the day.
On the drive, the Trojans stuffed a run and limited Carr to simple screen passes to the outside forcing a Fresno State punt. These are the type of performances from Clancy Pendergast's defense that make you excited for what's to come moving forward when scholarship numbers give USC more ability to recruit depth in the program.
The fourth quarter began with some visible frustration from the Trojans star-studded receiver when Kessler looked past Lee and dumped the ball down for what led to a punt. Lee wanted to put the Bulldogs away for good but certainly got his redeeming moment in a 12-play, 80-yard drive that not only killed clock but also showcased his best ability.
Lee took a quick strike from Kessler and dashed down the sideline for 36 yards, putting him over 100 yards for the 15th, and probably final, time in his career. This reception helped propel the Trojans' 45-point effort and also boosted the numbers for Las Vegas Bowl MVP Cody Kessler, who set personal records with 344 yards passing and four passing touchdowns.
The USC Trojans played their final game for the seniors on this roster including Abe Markowitz, Kevin Graf, Devon Kennard, Silas Redd and De'Von Flourney among many others on this team. Helton said after the game that "we did it in Trojan style," referring to the wire-to-wire victory over Fresno State to end the year with 10 wins.