Game 14: 'It's Good to Have You With Us, Even if It's Just for the Day'
Will the Trojans be the Killers - or the roadkill - when they face off with Fresno State in Las Vegas?
The BCS No. 25 USC Trojans (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12 South, T2nd) wrap up the 2013 season against the Mountain West Conference champion Fresno State Bulldogs (11-1, 7-1 MWC), ranked No. 20 by the BCS and USA Today coaches' poll and No. 21 by the Associated Press, in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl this Saturday, December 21, at 12:30 p.m. PST at Sam Boyd Stadium and in front of a national ABC television audience. It's the third meeting between the schools - the Bulldogs defeated USC, 24-7, in the 1992 Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, while the Trojans outlasted Fresno State, 50-42 in a wild 2005 matchup at the Coliseum. This is the 22nd playing of the Las Vegas Bowl, and it's the second appearance in the game for both schools - Fresno State lost to Utah, 17-16, in 1999, while the Trojans dropped a 10-6 decision to the Utes on Christmas Day 2001.
Three weeks ago, USC closed out its regular season with a disappointing 35-14 loss to crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans fell behind early and seemed to lose some of the emotional edge they'd played with during a surprising five-game winning streak leading up to the contest, while the Bruin gameplan on both sides of the ball was stellar - and more importantly - well executed. On Dec. 7, the Bulldogs recovered from their only loss of 2013 (a 62-52 defeat at San Jose State on Nov. 29) to defeat Utah State, 24-17, in the MWC Championship game.
In the days after the loss to UCLA, the Trojans hired Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, who will take over the program following the conclusion of the Las Vegas Bowl. In the wake of that hiring, interim coach Ed Orgeron, who led USC to a 6-2 mark after the Sept. 29 firing of Lane Kiffin, left the program to seek other head coaching opportunities. That means the Trojans will take the field under their third head coach of the season Saturday, when offensive coordinator Clay Helton takes the interim title. Meanwhile, Fresno State headman Tim DeRuyter (21-5, including a win as Texas A&M's interim coach in the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl) is in second season on campus. The Air Force alum, known as a defensive stalwart, installed a high-flying spread passing attack when he arrived in Fresno, and the Bulldogs have put up huge numbers in the 25 games since. DeRuyter was briefly rumored as a possible target during USC's coaching search and should the Bulldogs win Saturday, he could get some more interest from other programs with coaching vacancies.
Fresno State Offense
Offensive coordinator Dave Schramm has created a monster in his two years in Fresno. Take a look at these numbers: Fresno State is No. 1 nationally in passing yards per game (409.8); third in total offense (570.6); third in plays per game (85.6) and fifth in scoring (45.3). This fast-paced group is helmed by senior QB Derek Carr. The MWC Offensive Player of the Year in each of the past two seasons, Carr was somehow left off the dais at the Heisman Trophy ceremony last Saturday even though he leads the nation in total offense (4,983 yards), passing yards (4,866), passing yards per game (405.5), completions per game (35.3) and passing TDs (48). He's been able to pick apart defense after defense in 2013, throwing for 400 or more yards eight times, failing to throw for at least 300 yards only twice and tossing four TDs or more in seven of the Bulldogs 12 games. And though he's not a dual-threat like a Brett Hundley or Chuckie Keeton, he can hurt you with his legs if flushed from the pocket.
Carr has three stellar options at wideout. Sophomore Davante Adams, junior Josh Harper and senior Isaiah Burse have each notched at least 16 catches in a single game in 2013 (Adams with 16 at Idaho on Oct. 5; Burse with a school-record 17 vs. Nevada on Nov. 2; and Harper with a record-tying 17 vs. Utah State on Dec. 7). The speedy and elusive 6-foot-2 Adams is the leader though - he leads the nation with 122 catches, including a mind-blowing 23 TD grabs. Burse is next up with 94 grabs, five for scores, while Harper has 79 catches (28 more than USC's leading receiver in 2013), for 13 TDs (he's been suffering from a groin issue, but appears ready to go Saturday). The Trojans cannot sleep on 6-foot-6, 270-pound tight end Marcel Jensen, who is often used in more of a slot position. He has three TDs among his 24 catches.
The Bulldog backfield is a two-headed monster - and both players are nearly as dangerous as pass catchers as they are runners. Junior Josh Quezada, a transfer from BYU, leads the team with 787 yards rushing (averaging 5.1 yards per carry). He's scored six times on the ground and once via the pass - he's caught 48 total balls as a key option on screens and check-downs. Sophomore Marteze Waller is more of a banger and gets used in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Still, he's averaging 5.2 yards per carry (629 rushing yards on the season) with seven TDs. He's also caught 21 passes out of the backfield.
Fresno State's offensive line play has been crucial to its success. Not only has this group paved the way for the team to average 4.7 yards per carry, it's only allowed 11 sacks in 2013 (ranking ninth nationally). Defenses simply don't get to Carr very often. The group is led by senior All-MWC first-teamer Austin Wentworth at left tackle and junior Cody Wichmann at right guard. Both are multi-year starters and they've groomed their linemates well. Health has been a key for this group as well, as sophomore right tackle Justin Northern and senior center Lars Bramer have started all 12, and sophomore left guard Bo Bonnheim has started the past six after taking over for classmate Alex Fifita.
Fresno State Defense
Defensive coordinator Nick Toth and defensive mastermind DeRuyter have struggled to match the success of their offensive staff counterparts. Fresno State has been stellar at times - allowing just 51 rushing yards to Utah State in the MWC title game, while notching 39 sacks and 13 INTs on the season - but has also been awful for long stretches. The Bulldogs give up 425 yards and 29 points per game, have been burned for 300-plus passing yards in five contests and 170-plus rushing yards in five games as well. The worst performance came in Fresno's only loss in 2013, when San Jose State rolled up 746 total yards and 62 points. The Bulldogs' attacking 3-4 set is nothing if not high-risk, high-reward.
Up front, junior nose guard Tyeler Davison, a second-team All-MWC choice leads the way. He counts two sacks and seven tackles for loss (TFL) among his 38 stops. Senior ends Andy Jennings and Nikko Motta are spelled by sophomore Todd Hunt in a rotation. Motta leads the trio with three sacks and they've combined for 17 TFL among 96 stops.
Much like the Trojans' last opponent (UCLA) and, well, the Trojans themselves, the Bulldogs' top playmakers reside at linebacker. Junior MLB Karl Mickelsen is an aggressive stay-at-home type (just one TFL among his team-leading 88 stops). He plays with controlled abandon, and the Bulldogs count on him to be in position in order to let others roam. Sophomore Ejiro Ederaine wasn't expected to be a huge factor prior to the season, but injuries thrust him into the spotlight - and, boy, has he taken to it. His 10 sacks and 15.5 TFL easily lead the team from one outside backer spot. Junior Donavon Lewis plays the other outside spot, and counts five sacks among his 39 tackles. Sophomore Kyrie Wilson rounds out this quartet on the inside. He's second on the team with 80 tackles, including 3.5 sacks - two in the MWC title game.
The Bulldog secondary has had its issues. But All-MWC first-teamer Derron Smith's work at free safety hasn't been one of them. The junior has 69 tackles, six interceptions (nearly half of FSU's total of 13) and four sacks and is, simply, a playmaker. Sophomore Charles Washington (66 tackles, two sacks, one INT) started the first 11 at the other safety spot before starting the MWC title game at corner in place of junior Curtis Riley. Redshirt freshman Dalen Jones filled in at safety and should see time in the bowl. The hope for Fresno State is that senior corner L.J. Jones can return from a knee injury that's forced him to miss the past five games, moving Washington back to safety. Senior Jonathan Norton looks to be the choice over redshirt freshman Jamal Ellis at the other corner spot.
Fresno State Special Teams
Freshman Colin McGuire has handled the bulk of the kicking duties (sophomore Garrett Swanson may see duty on kickoffs). He's got a big but erratic leg - making 11-of-16 field goal attempts, with a long of 47. Three of his misses have been from 36 yards or closer, however. Swanson handles the punting duties, averaging 42.8 yards on 45 boots. More than half of his punts have been fair caught. Burse has been spectacular on punt returns, averaging 12.5 yards per attempt, with two TDs. Cornerback Dillon Root (21.5 per; long return of 56) had been the go-to on kick returns before serving a two-game suspension late in the season. Freshman Da'Mari Scott seems to be the guy now.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense definitely took a step or two back in the loss to UCLA. After putting together a series of well-planned, well-executed performances, USC's offense was herky-jerky from the start against the Bruins - and injuries to center Marcus Martin and guard Aundrey Walker definitely did not help matters. Still the Trojans got away from their recent bread-and-butter - the power running attack featuring Javorius "Buck" Allen - once they got down 14-0. Time and again, though UCLA simply had no chance against Allen coming straight at them, USC ran side-to-side or forced a needless first-down pass. And once the Bruins took a commanding edge in the fourth quarter, it was tee-off time on Cody Kessler.
The bad news for the Trojans heading into Sin City is that Martin and Walker will both miss the game. This leaves a tremendous hole in the middle of USC's front five - troubling against Fresno State's vaunted pass rush. Seniors Abe Markowitz at center and John Martinez at right guard will get the first crack. Martinez, in particular, has struggled in 2013. The good news is that the receiving arsenal commanded by Kessler is as healthy as it's been since the season's early weeks. If the Trojans can sustain a running attack and protect Kessler, this receiving corps could be in for a big day against that struggling Bulldog secondary.
Those are two big "ifs." With Helton auditioning for an offensive coordinator (or even a head coaching) spot somewhere in America, it'll be interesting to see how aggressive he is. Will he want to look like an offensive mastermind, able to design an offense that can throw it anywhere and everywhere? Or will he continue to play to the Trojans' recent strengths - healthy doses of Allen, with play-action and screens in the passing game to slow the Bulldog rush. That - plus the play of the offensive line - will tell the tale for the Trojan offense. One last note to chew on: in Fresno State's four toughest games of 2013 - one-point wins over Rutgers and Boise State, an OT win at San Diego State and the loss to San Jose State - the Bulldogs allowed an average of 181 yards on the ground.
USC Defensive Gameplan
For the second consecutive year, the Trojan defense simply could not solve UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. Whether passing or running, Hundley bedeviled the USC front seven and kept one Bruin drive alive after another. For once, the Trojans' lack of depth really hurt, as UCLA's hurry-up offense wore down the USC squad and Hundley spent much of the middle 40 minutes of the game toying with them. Don't get me wrong: there was no lack of effort here. No team with players with motors like George Uko, Devon Kennard and Hayes Pullard will ever be accused of that by any right-thinking fan. No, UCLA just had a better plan and out-executed USC.
This week, the challenge is different - Fresno State's pass-happy attack - but one issue remains the same: depth. The Bulldogs play on fast-forward - nearly 86 plays per game. How can a USC defense that's playing 12 - maybe 13 - guys keep from tiring? One key will be third down - the Bulldogs convert at 45 percent on the season, but the Trojans have been one of the best third-down defenses in America, allowing just a 34-percent conversion rate to the opposition.
How can they make third downs tougher on Carr and Co.? Well, those four tough games that Fresno State played this season again may be instructive. Only against San Jose State did the Bulldogs run the ball effectively (16 carries for 127 yards). Against Rutgers, Boise State and San Diego State - combined - Fresno State gained just 186 yards in 66 carries. The Trojan front seven must take away the run and push Carr into tougher third-down opportunities. At that point, it will be on Clancy Pendergast, in likely his final game as USC's defensive coordinator, to disguise coverages and pass rushers. While it's unlikely that USC will get more than a sack or two, the Trojans must make Carr uncomfortable. That's where another intangible comes in: how will the USC defensive line perform after the emotional exit of its leader, Coach O? If Carr has time, it could be lights out for the USC secondary - even with playmakers Josh Shaw, Dion Bailey and Su'a Cravens ballhawking.
It's been a rather memorable season for this Trojan team and its supporters - to use a cliché, a true roller-coaster ride. Early losses to Washington State and Arizona State leading to Kiffin's departure; the breath of fresh air provided by Orgeron; a frustrating loss at Notre Dame; five straight wins, including an emotional takedown of No. 5 Stanford; and, finally, the loss to UCLA.
Now, with its third coach in less than three months at the helm (and a fourth waiting in the wings), USC faces a task that's been an issue in this program forever: facing a non-marquee program in a minor bowl. Anyone who has been around the Trojans for any length of time knows the history - USC simply has not performed well in this circumstance. And with the emotional departure of Coach O fresh in the minds of the players - many of them NFL-draft eligible following Saturday - just how focused will this team be?
How this game goes will be decided rather early. If USC is able to get on the board early and get some momentum - give themselves a real reason to play for those 10 wins and to salute Coach O - I expect the Trojans and Bulldogs will play a thriller. However, if the USC offense struggles early and Carr puts Fresno State up by a couple of scores, you could see things get pretty ugly. This Trojan team, though, deserves the belief that they will, in fact, show up and show up big. This Trojan team has truly fought on. There is no way this club, with the coaching changes, depth issues and injury problems it's faced, should be on the precipice of 10 wins. But here they are. If they go down Saturday, I believe they will go with a fight. And for that reason alone, they deserve just one more week of believing in them as much as they believe in the Trojan Spirit.
USC 35, Fresno State 34
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)
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