Fresno State (11-1) vs. USC (9-4) Dec. 21, 3:30, ABC
Here's The Deal … USC is on its third head coach of the season. Will the Trojans be motivated to capture win No. 10, or is this going to be a repeat of the dreadful 2012 Sun Bowl performance versus Georgia Tech?
It's been a tumultuous year for Troy, from the firing of Lane Kiffin on Sept. 28 to the emotional second-half run commandeered by interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron is gone, leaving offensive coordinator Clay Helton to captain the ship until Steve Sarkisian takes over on a full-time basis after the final gun. But where are the Trojans' heads these days? The popular Orgeron leaves a gaping void for a team that fed off his energy in October and November. USC does have ample talent, much of which is young enough to still be interested in impressing the new boss.
Fresno State is facing some psychology issues as well. The Bulldogs were hurtling toward a school-first BCS bowl game before getting derailed by San Jose State, 62-52, on Nov. 29. It was a devastating loss that completely altered the trajectory of the season. They did bounce back to capture the Mountain West crown a week later, while tying a program record for wins in a season. Oh, and facing a traditional power from the Pac-12, such as USC, ought to help the Fresno State players forget for a few hours just how close they were to a date with Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day.
Players to Watch: Fresno State QB Derek Carr hasn't faced a D the caliber of USC's all year. Go ahead and label the Las Vegas Bowl as one really good final audition for the senior. Carr is in that top tier of hurlers who'll be vying to be drafted high in April. He won't be alone when facing the Pac-12's top pass defense on Saturday. The Bulldogs boast one of the premier receiving corps in America, a unit that'll boast three 1,000-yard receivers once Isaiah Burse picks up 13 yards. Sophomore Davante Adams is a beast on the outside, entering the game with FBS highs in catches and touchdown receptions.
The Trojans' biggest edge on Saturday will be along the D-line, where they're littered with top-flight talent. On the outside, ends Leonard Williams and George Uko are complemented by the pass-rushing ability of outside linebackers Devon Kennard and J.R. Tavai. Williams has bloomed into a star after just two years, big enough to stuff the run and quick enough to pressure the pocket. Tavai is a hidden gem. He's stepped in for the injured Morgan Breslin and has done an outstanding job. Tavai plays like he's channeling Clay Matthews, bringing maximum intensity to the field.
In what will likely be his final college game, USC WR Marqise Lee is as healthy and well-rested as he's been all year. Nagging injuries have limited the 2012 All-American to just 50 catches for 673 yards and two touchdowns. Lee at 100% is great news for sophomore QB Cody Kessler, who's become a stable presence behind center for the Trojans. Kessler has also been aided by the sudden emergence of RB Javorius Allen, a first half of the season afterthought who's gone over 100 yards in four of the last five games.
Can a Fresno State defense that's lacked consistency, especially against the pass, hold up versus a quality Pac-12 team? It was just last month that the Bulldogs got shelled for 547 yards and six touchdowns by San Jose State QB David Fales. Tim DeRuyter's D will lean heavily on a couple of All-Mountain West performers, S Derron Smith and LB Ejiro Ederaine. Smith has game-changing ball skills, especially for a safety, while Ederaine has been a revelation off the edge. Ederaine has 10 sacks and will use his get-off and timing to get in Kessler's face before he has time to set his feet.
Fresno State will win if … the defense doesn't go AWOL.
The Bulldogs are clearly led by Carr and the offense. But, if the D is on the field all afternoon, the team has no chance to showcase its firepower. The longer that Kessler & Co. are on the field, the tougher it becomes for Fresno State to remain a one-loss squad. The Bulldogs have been pretty good at forcing punts this fall, a trend that must continue on the first day of winter. Fresno State's hopes rest on the strong right shoulder of Carr. It's up to coordinator Nick Toth's defense to make sure that Carr gets at least 50 opportunities to locate one of his big-play receivers.
USC will win if … it plays as if Coach O is still calling the shots.
The Trojans are better than the Bulldogs everywhere except in the passing game, but it won't make a difference if they sleepwalk through the first three quarters. Fresno State lives in the Pac-12 shadow and wants this game badly, so USC better come ready to play. It has to play like the team that temporarily knocked Stanford off its Rose Bowl axis in November. That means running the ball with authority and swarming to it on defense. If Troy resembles—in any way—the team that lollygagged through last year's bowl game, it'll get embarrassed for a second straight year.
What Will Happen: Sadly, want-to is a powerful emotion in college football's postseason. Advantage, Fresno State.
USC will say all the right things, but does it really want to be in Las Vegas to play a Mountain West team … without its leader? No, it won't be a repeat of last December's debacle, but the Trojans will have a difficult time getting back up again after losing the UCLA game and then losing Orgeron as well. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, have an ample supply of talent and motivation to earn an important postseason win. DeRuyter will have his kids fired up on both sides of the ball, playing with a little more passion and intensity than USC. While Carr won't tee off against the Trojan D, he will outplay Kessler to close his career with a school-record twelfth win of the year.
Prediction: Fresno State 34 … USC 26
Line: USC -6 o/u: 62
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