Fresno St.-Southern Cal Preview
College football's coaching carousel has been spinning all season on the campus of Southern California, which hopes to have found its long-term solution in former assistant Steve Sarkisian.
But before Sarkisian mans the sideline as their head coach, offensive coordinator Clay Helton will guide the Trojans in Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against No. 21 Fresno State, which fell short of a potential BCS bid.
Lane Kiffin's controversial tenure at USC ended with his firing following a 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28, and the Trojans (9-4) promoted assistant head coach Ed Orgeron to the interim job.
USC seemed to be sparked by the coaching change, winning six of its first seven under Orgeron before ending the regular season with a 35-14 home loss to then-No. 22 UCLA on Nov. 30.
Despite that success, athletic director Pat Haden decided to hire Sarkisian away from Washington rather than give the permanent job to Orgeron, who turned down overtures from Sarkisian to remain on staff and resigned to pursue another head coaching job.
Helton will be USC's third acting coach this season and is tasked with motivating a group of players largely disappointed over the departure of Orgeron. Sarkisian immediately tried to calm the situation as well.
''After the Coach O meeting, guys were freaking out,'' said quarterback Cody Kessler, who was recruited by Sarkisian when the coach was at Washington. ''It was unreal. I was really proud of the way (Sarkisian) handled that situation. The guys like me who know him well, we weren't surprised how he immediately came in and helped guys start to get over it.''
Sarkisian spoke of his future goals for the program, but he also realizes the Trojans still have a game to play in a less-than-ideal situation.
"Rebuilding is not a word around here. Coach O proved that," Sarkisian said. "I understand it stings right now. Over time, it will get better. I'm going to be real with those guys, and they'll be real with me.''
USC's focus will be slowing a Fresno State offense led by senior quarterback Derek Carr that ranks first in the nation in passing (409.8 yards per game), third in total offense (570.6) and fifth in scoring with 43.5 points per game.
The Bulldogs (11-1) won their first outright conference championship since winning the Big West in 1989 by beating Utah State 24-17 in the inaugural Mountain West Conference title game Dec. 7.
''This is a big reason why I came back,'' said Carr, who has thrown for at least 400 yards eight times this season. ''I wanted to win an outright championship. Sharing a title was great. As a competitor that wasn't enough. We wanted to come back and finish this thing right.''
Carr's competitive nature likely led him to be disappointed that Fresno State lost its chance at a potential BCS bowl bid with a 62-52 loss to San Jose State on Nov. 29. Coach Tim DeRuyter, though, was pleased with how his team bounced back from that defeat.
''If your only goal is to go to the BCS, why show up and play?'' DeRuyter said.
The Bulldogs lead the nation with 73 passing plays of 20-plus yards and have a solid core of receiving threats led by sophomore standout Davante Adams, who leads the nation with 122 receptions and 23 touchdowns while ranking second with 1,645 yards.
USC's defense ranks 16th in the country by giving up 341.5 yards per game and first in the Pac-12 with an average of 214.5 yards allowed through the air.
The Trojans, though, ranked 11th in the conference in total offense with 392.3 yards per game, as last season's Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee missed three games due to injury. He has 50 catches for 673 yards and two touchdowns after catching 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 TDs in 2012.
Running back Silas Redd likely won't play for USC because of a knee injury, and sophomore Javorius Allen is expected to start. Allen is averaging 112.4 yards over the last five, scoring 10 touchdowns in that stretch.
Fresno State, which has lost four straight bowl games and was outscored 83-27 over the last two, ranks third in the Mountain West with an average of 147.7 yards allowed on the ground. It is giving up 278.2 yards through the air to rank 11th in the 12-team league.
This will be the third meeting between these teams. Fresno State won 24-7 in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, while USC's 50-42 home victory in 2005 was later vacated due to NCAA sanctions.