Maybe Ed Orgeron wasn't on the sidelines for USC's game against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, but the spirit he instilled in the team was present as the Trojans knocked off Fresno State, 45-20, on Saturday.
The team responded nicely under interim coach Clay Helton, who has been mentioned lately for the open Florida offensive coordinator position although Inside USC reported he would be kept on as offensive coordinator under Steve Sarkisian.
But it was impossible to separate this USC team from Ed Orgeron. Some players even had "Coach O" written across their arms, according to CBS's Bruce Feldman. The most noticeable difference seen by the team coached by Helton was in the development of quarterback Cody Kessler, who despite some inconsistency throughout the year, had one of his sharpest games against a depleted Fresno State secondary. The sophomore finished the day 22-of-31 for 342 yards, four touchdowns and a pick, and the return of a healthy Marqise Lee to go with Nelson Agholor made a big difference. The pair of receivers combined for 212 yards and all four of Kessler's scores on the day.
There is plenty to be excited about if you're Sarkisian. As long as the new USC coach, fresh from Washington, can win over the Trojan players, the rejuvenation largely started by Orgeron could lead to even more success over the next couple years. USC played for three different coaches, had a variety of injuries and has been all over the map emotionally since the start of the season.
After Lane Kiffin was fired at an airport following the team's loss to Arizona State on Sept. 29, it would've been easy for the Trojans to give up entirely. Finishing the year at 10 wins, including the bowl win and a 20-17 upset of Stanford on Nov. 16, feels like a real accomplishment.
For Fresno State the loss is a sour one considering the position the Bulldogs were in just a few weeks ago. In line for an at-large BCS berth entering its game against San Jose State, all Fresno State had to do was beat the Spartans and win the Mountain West Championship and the Bulldogs would likely have been playing in the Fiesta Bowl. Instead they were upset by SJSU, 62-52, the day after Thanksgiving and relegated to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they looked overmatched again. Quarterback Derek Carr needed a showcase performance to boost his draft stock, as there have been questions all year about whether he's merely a system quarterback taking advantage of inferior competition. He didn't do much to quell those concerns, as USC's secondary sat on the underneath routes and dared Carr to beat it deep, which he was unable to do on a variety of opportunities. A hard hit left Carr favoring his shoulder in the first half, and that may have had something to do with it, but that excuse won't exactly fly with a lot of NFL Draft nuts. He finished the day 29-of-54 for 218 yards, just four yards per attempt, with two scores and an interception.