(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)
No. 25 USC (9-4) vs. No. 20 Fresno State (11-1)
Saturday, Dec. 21st at 3:30pm ET (ABC)
Line: USC -6.5
How USC Got Here: By firing Lane Kiffin. It really is that simple for the Trojans, who found themselves sitting at 0-2 in the Pac-12 following a 62-41 trouncing at Arizona State. Pat Haden left Kiffin on the tarmac and the team responded by going 6-2 the rest of the season. Going 9-4 on the season (yes, that good old Hawai'i extra game rule is still in effect) is not what USC is used to for the most part, but the way things started out this season was going downhill fast and the fact that the Trojans are playing in a bowl game, let alone sitting inside the Top 25 should be considered a miracle. Ed Orgeron, who took over as interim head coach, did a yeoman’s job with this bunch and they responded for him. Saturday will be his last go-round with the program before Steve Sarkisian comes to the Men of Troy as the full-time head coach.
How Fresno State Got Here: If there is a more disappointed team in the world of college football than the Bulldogs, it may only reside in Columbus, Ohio. The Bulldogs went from a potential BCS Bowl bid, to losing their final regular season game in an absolute shootout with San Jose State. The fact that they get to take on a ranked opponent in Las Vegas to end the season isn't a bad consolation prize though.
For USC to win: This will all come down to two things for the Trojans on Saturday—winning the ground game and stopping the aerial attack of the Bulldogs. Sometimes the old saying "the best defense is a good offense" is true and when Derrick Carr is on the opposite sideline he can't do any damage. That means the Trojans need to get the running game going against a Top 40 rushing defense in the country. Luckily for the Trojans they've found a rushing game as of late, going for 140-plus yards in three of the final four games of this season. Keeping the ball on the ground keeps Carr off the field, but when he is on the field the Trojans have to get after him and that's where they've excelled following Kiffin's departure—ranking 24th nationally in sacks per game (35 total sacks in 13 games).
For Fresno State to win: It's all about the passing game and scoring a ton of points for Fresno State, as they rank 12th in passing yards (325.6) and 17th in points (37.9). Having the combo of quarterback Derek Carr and sophomore wide receiver Davante Adams will do that to you. The two combined for 122 receptions, 1,645 yards and 23 touchdowns. Adams counted for just under half of his QB's total of 48 TD passes this season. Those two have to get going against a very tough USC pass defense that gave up just over 214 yards a game and comes in ranked 32nd in the nation in that category.
Key Player (USC): Devon Kennard, OLB. Yes, everyone will want to point to the offense, but against Fresno State you don't have a chance to win if you can't play a little bit of defense. Kennard leads the Trojans with nine sacks and tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (13.5). Without pressure on a player like Carr he will pick you apart. Getting said pressure won't be easy as the Bulldogs have given up just 11 sacks all season long, but Kennard and defensive end Leonard Williams will be on that task Saturday afternoon.
Key Player (Fresno State): Derek Carr, QB. It's pretty easy to see how Fresno State won 11 games and won five of those by a touchdown or less. Carr completed 70.1 percent of his passes and had a 48 to 7 touchdown to interception ration in 2012. You don't lose often when that happens as a quarterback. Averaging just over 405 yards a game and throwing for 4,855 yards on the year also doesn't hurt. Without Carr playing, and playing well this team just isn't the same. The Bulldogs go as the passing game goes.
Key Stat: It's been mentioned before, but the fact that nearly half (5) of the Bulldogs wins this season came by a TD or less is the key to this game. USC has only played in four games decided by a TD or less and it is only 2-2 in those games. Experience and confidence in knowing you are going to win in those situations goes a long way towards actually winning in pressure situations.