After the season USC went through, the Trojans could have crumbled, but they didn't. After losing beloved interim head coach Ed Orgeron and an ugly loss to crosstown rivals UCLA, the Trojans could have lost their mojo, but they didn't.
After three years of trying to get back on top, the Trojans could have just given up, but they didn't. And they could have come into the Las Vegas Bowl flat and performed poorly against Fresno State, but they didn't.
In dominating the Bulldogs 45-20—with only 30 healthy scholarship athletes and led by their third head coach this season—USC completed its goal of finishing the year with 10 wins and proved to the nation that in 2014, the Trojans will be back.
For real this time.
Senior linebacker Devon Kennard spoke to the media after the game, addressing the big moment:
"It is a huge testament to the players we have on this team and the coaching staff," said captain Devon Kennard. "To get 10 wins with everything that we've gone through, this is a season I am never going to forget and brothers that I am going to have for the rest of my lifetime."
It started from the opening quarter, when USC marched down the field in a 12-play, 65-yard scoring drive punctuated by quarterback Cody Kessler hitting Marqise Lee for a 10-yard touchdown. The offense just kept on rolling from there, with Kessler and the receivers eating 243 yards through the air and "Buck" Allen and Ty Isaac chewing up 77 yards between them on the ground, in the first half alone.
Aside from three touchdowns that came off an onside-kick penalty, a fumbled punt return and a pick-six, Fresno State was wholly incapable of getting any kind of leverage against the Trojans. USC looked the best it has all season, outside of the game against Stanford.
To be sure, this Fresno State team wasn't your average mid-major opponent: One bad defensive performance kept them out of BCS talks, and the Bulldogs' high-powered offense has been lethal all season. But against USC, that stellar performance just wasn't there.
The USC offense was wheeling and dealing all afternoon, and interim head coach Clay Helton showed no signs of going conservative. He dialed up a 40-yard bomb from Kessler to Lee near the end of the first half to prove it.
In the spirit of all things Las Vegas, USC gambled on fourth down twice and converted, and Kessler—in a surprising and uncharacteristic move—got the Trojan crowd even more hyped on a 3rd-and-12 in the third quarter when he took the snap, scrambled and darted across the field himself for the first down.
In the Battle for Bakersfield, Kessler reigned supreme: He finished the day 22-of-31 for 344 yards and four touchdowns to Derek Carr's 29-of-54 for 217 yards, two-touchdown and one interception-performance.
Lee—in what will likely be his last game as a Trojan—had seven receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, returning stars Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor had two touchdowns a piece.
He, too, addressed the media in the post-game press conference, commenting on what was one of his strongest performances since the 2012 season:
"I actually came out here 100% for the first time, and it felt amazing," said Lee who had been banged up since Fall Camp. "Our whole focus was let's show 'em. We knew what we are capable of when we come together and play as one."
Despite a few mistakes, such as the late pick-six from from Kessler, the Trojans made a statement in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl about exactly who they are.
Defensively, the Trojans accomplished what seemed challenging going into this game: They disrupted the Fresno State quarterback all afternoon and largely neutralized the threat of stud wide receiver Davante Adams.
Young players like cornerback Kevon Seymour and Freshman All-American Su'a Cravens played their best games of the season. Seymour broke up a number of plays that would have produced big yards for the Bulldogs, and Cravens left his stamp on the game when he sniffed out and shut down a fake punt in the middle of the second quarter.
According to USC's athletic department site, Seymour had a team-high seven tackles and earned Defensive MVP honors. After getting killed against UCLA in the final game of the season, Seymour had something to prove, and he certainly proved it:
"I just had to look at the man in the mirror, and let myself know it is time to go," said Seymour about his change in mindset. "I was playing with a chip on my shoulder. I had to determine if I wanted to be good or if I wanted to be great."
Because of USC's aggressive pass rush, Carr never found his comfort zone. He couldn't get his feet set and found himself evading tacklers much more than he ever had to during the regular season. He overthrew his targets and generally looked frustrated by the suffocating defensive onslaught constantly coming at him.
In their final act of the season, the USC Trojans played with every ounce of talent they had, and even with their depleted numbers, they still looked like a Top 25 team. We didn't see that nearly enough from USC in 2013, but if there is one thing we learned, it's that coaching really does make a difference.
All that said, USC still has some serious flaws it needs to erase before it can be back at the top of the Pac-12. The Trojans started the game on fire, and though they looked good in the second half, those flames dramatically petered out. USC only scored three points in the third quarter and just seven in the fourth, typical of their performances all season with or without Lane Kiffin.
What made USC so good during the Glory Days was how well the Trojans played in the second half. Through three different head coaches, this Trojan team has been the antithesis of that. It's something new head coach Steve Sarkisian is going to need to fix if he wants to get USC back to its winning days early in his tenure.
Sarkisian inherits a team loaded with talent, only losing a few guys at key positions. The Trojans will return what should be one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 and an offense that is finally coming alive as Kessler continues to improve and find confidence in himself.
After a rocky start, Kessler made major strides throughout 2013. He finished the season with 2,623 yards and 16 touchdowns while showing signs of mobility, which will serve him well in Sarkisian's new offense. It's been a long time coming, but he finally looks ready to lead USC into the future.
Make no mistake, USC will still be plagued by depth issues and won't recover from that part of the sanctions until 2016. But if the Trojans could squeak out 10 wins in 2013 with a reduced number of scholarship athletes and three different head coaches, imagine what they could do with just a few more healthy bodies and a head coach who knows how to develop talent and win.
It's going to be a fun offseason in Troy. After everything that happened this year, who saw that coming?
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