USC Football: A bowl of vindication

USC Football

Interim, interim head coach Clay Helton holds up the Las Vegas Bowl Trophy (Photo credits: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

USC Football picked up its 26th 10+ win season on Saturday and their second in three years. It was also their 33rd bowl win. Not bad for a sanctioned team that had three different head coaches. They also produced the first undefeated head coach for USC since Henry H. Goddard and Frank H. Suffel co-coached the first ever USC Football team to a 2-0 record. Also not bad for a self-proclaimed third-string head coach.

Actually, that is not bad for any team in the nation. Some have never reached double digits.

USC played the longest game of the season since the game against Hawaii. Fresno State was hyped up only to be cut down. By the end, the thought that Fresno State was a BCS contender not too long ago faded.

USC almost did not need the last three quarters to beat Fresno State. Six minutes into the second quarter, USC was up 21-6 and Fresno State would only score 20 by the end.

The game was only close at the start because Fresno State got an extremely short field on their first possession. USC had scored on a drive kept alive by a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak and disguised an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. Su’a Cravens had recovered it for USC initially, but the officials evoked a nearly unknown rule. Rule 6 Section 4 Article 1 states that,

“a. A player of the receiving team within the boundary lines attempting to catch a kick, and so located that he could have caught a free kick or a scrimmage kick that is beyond the neutral zone, must be given an unimpeded opportunity to catch the kick (A.R. 6-3-1-III, A.R. 6-4-1-V, VI and IX).

b. It is an interference foul if, before the receiver touches the ball, a Team A player enters the area defined by the width of the receiver’s shoulders and extending one yard in front of him. When in question it is a foul.(A.R.6-4-1-X-XIII)

c. This protection terminates when the kick touches the ground (Exception: Free kick, par. f below), when any player of Team B muffs or touches a scrimmage kick beyond the neutral zone, or when any player of Team B muffs or touches a free kick in the field of play or in the end zone (Exception: Rule 6-5-1-b) (A.R. 6-4-1-IV).

f. During a free kick a player of the receiving team in position to receive the ball has the same kick-catch and fair-catch protection whether the ball is kicked directly off the tee or is immediately driven to the ground, strikes the ground once and goes into the air in the manner of the ball kicked directly off the tee.”

The ruling, for this situation, was fair even if the rule does not seem fair. Fresno State took the ball to the end zone in 21 seconds and tried to tie up the game. USC special teams denied the Bulldogs their extra point, maintaining the lead. That would be the closest score for the rest of the game.

Fresno State failed to produce anything for the rest of the half, converting only one third down on their own power. The rest came from USC penalties on drives they still failed to capitalize on. They ended up punting four times and losing the ball on downs in back to back drives, including a fake punt that went nowhere.

USC was just the opposite, scoring five touchdowns while punting only twice on their seven possessions.

The second half looked better for Fresno State, but not by much. They managed to score early when Nelson Agholor fumbled a punt return. The next and final Fresno State score was a fourth quarter pick six off of Kessler’s pass. Throughout the game, the Bulldogs could only score from big USC errors.

Derek Carr averaged 405.5 passing yards per game, but only managed 216 yards against USC. The only time he threw for less yards this season was before being relieved by the backup in a blowout game against FCS Cal Poly, when he threw for 205 yards and 3 touchdowns. The bowl game was his second lowest total this season and the fourth lowest in his career.

USC Football

Derek Carr overshot his receivers more often than not (Photo credits: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Todd McShay had projected Carr to go as high the sixth overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Many other mock drafts have him going somewhere in the top 10 picks. However, he missed most long passes and never looked comfortable in the pocket. While he did not take a sack due to quick throws, his rhythm was not there under constant USC pressure. The Fresno State offensive coordinator tried to bail him out by calling screen passes to fight off the pressure, but Dion Bailey and company snuffed most of them out.

The other quarterback, the much less heralded Cody Kessler, looked as good as any of the past couple USC quarterbacks during this game. A quarterback that began the season fighting for the starting job out-dueled a quarterback that finished eighth in Heisman voting. Kessler threw a career high 345 yards and 4 touchdowns— those touchdowns were also a Vegas Bowl record. Kessler passed two touchdowns each to Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.

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Kessler’s first career 300-yard passing game contributed greatly to a respectable season total. If you need more convincing, compare John David Booty’s 2007 stats to Kessler’s. Keep in mind, this was Booty’s redshirt senior season and his second year as starter. Kessler was only a redshirt sophomore in first year starting.

Player CMP ATT Yards CMP % Yards Per Attempt Long TD INT Sack Passer Efficiency
Cody Kessler 236 361 2968 65.4 8.22 80 20 7 30 148.8
John David Booty 215 340 2361 63.2 6.94 63 23 10 12 138

Kessler has better statistics in almost every category.

Through all the positives for the Trojans, some glaring negatives were hidden.

Again, penalties were an issue. USC lost 101 yards on 10 penalties. Some of them were completely pointless and a multitude happened on third downs. George Uko compiled 30 yards of penalties all by himself. That is to say, Uko lost almost as many yards on unnecessary penalties as the Fresno State team rushed for in the entire game. He compounded on that with his ejection for contact with an official later in the game. That kind of conduct should not be tolerated.

While USC’s offensive line mostly did enough on pass protection, there were many plays that the running back never even had a chance to get going before being tackled for a loss. Javorius Allen rushed for a loss or no gain on 9 out of 27 carries— one out of three times he was handed the ball— for a loss of 18 yards. Granted, the line had lost two starters to injury, but that is not a sufficient excuse.

Hopefully, such errors will not be overlooked by incoming head coach Steve Sarkisian because of the win.

At the end, the band played one last tribute to Coach O that echoed through the emptying stands. A fair number of Trojan fans put their arms up in the iconic “O”.
Many players also found some way to recognize Coach O. Despite some outlets slamming Orgeron for leaving right after the hiring of Sarkisian, the bowl game showed just how much fan and player support Orgeron still has.

With Sarkisian reportedly courting Orgeron again, there remains a possibility that Orgeron will be able to coach USC against Fresno State— only for the 2014 season opener rather than the bowl game. That would make things interesting.

And Royal Purple is a brand of synthetic motor oil, in case you were wondering.

Stray Snippets

USC dominated the time of possession, 41:27 to 18:33.

The goal post net failed to catch a few kicks that ended up landing in the tents behind the field.

With the victory over Fresno State, USC is 2-3 against top 25 teams. The only loss was against the lowest ranked team of the three: #22 UCLA.

USC did just as well away as they did at home, going 5-2 at home and 5-2 on the road.

USC had an average home game attendance of 73,126. While this is the lowest since Pete Carroll’s first season in 2001, it is still the highest home average in the Pac-12 for the 2013 season.

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