Las Vegas Bowl breakdown: Fresno State vs. USC

Thursday December 19th, 2013

USC sophomore Nelson Agholor (15) is one of the most dynamic receivers and return men in the nation.
John W. McDonough/SI

No. 20 Fresno State vs. No. 25 USC
Saturday Dec. 21, 3:30 ET (ABC)

BOWL SCHEDULE: Matchups, dates for every 2013-14 pairing

Reason to watch: With the departure of interim coach Ed Orgeron, USC becomes the rare team to play for three different coaches in a single season. First, Lane Kiffin was notoriously fired at an airport terminal following the Trojans' 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 28. Then Orgeron abruptly resigned after Steve Sarkisian was named the program's permanent headman on Dec. 2. As a result, the Trojans will take the field in Las Vegas under offensive coordinator Clay Helton, but their real test will come on defense.

Outside of Stanford, USC had the best defense in the Pac-12 this season. Featuring a front seven flush with talent -- George Uko, Devon Kennard, Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard may all have their names called in the upcoming NFL draft -- the Trojans excel at pressuring the quarterback. They finished the regular season ranked 14th nationally in sacks (35) and 16th in total defense (341.5 yards per game), respectively. The problem is that Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr doesn't typically hold the ball long enough to get sacked, and he'll challenge a talented if inconsistent USC secondary.

The Bulldogs enter the game with the nation's top-ranked passing attack (409.8 yards per game), a byproduct of their speedy offensive scheme and the quickness of Carr's release. A potential top-10 pick in the 2014 draft, Carr threw for an eye-popping 4,866 yards with 48 touchdowns and only seven interceptions this fall. But Carr has only faced two good passing defenses (Utah State and San Diego State) to date. If USC lets Carr live with short completions, Fresno State may struggle to rack up the points it has all year. But if Carr heats up, the usually trusty Trojans' defense could find itself on its heels.

Keep an eye on: USC sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor. This Trojans squad is not dominant like the ones in the Pete Carroll era, but it still possesses some of the nation's finest athletic talent. Agholor, a Tampa native, is a prime example. A dynamic wideout and return man, he scored two punt return touchdowns against Cal on Nov. 9, made eight catches for 104 yards in the Trojans' upset of Stanford on Nov. 16 and is a fine complement to superstar receiver Marqise Lee. A deadly threat in the open field, Agholor may excel against the Bulldogs' porous secondary and special teams. For Fresno State, be sure to watch receivers Davante Adams and Josh Harper. The duo has combined for 36 receiving touchdowns in 2013.

Did you know: The Bulldogs have converted 20 fourth downs this season, second in the nation. In a game that promises to be high scoring, coach Tim DeRuyter may trust his star quarterback instead of relying on his shaky defense. With a conversion rate of 69 percent (sixth in the nation), Fresno may take a few seemingly unusual risks in an attempt to knock off the Trojans.

Final analysis: Fresno State was on track to land a BCS bowl invite until a defensive meltdown cost it in a 62-52 loss to San Jose State on Black Friday. USC certainly lost some of its mojo after the coach who saved its season decided to resign. The numbers favor the Trojans, but USC's lackluster play without Orgeron running the show offers reason for pause. While this year's Trojans' defense is far better than last year's group, remember USC's woeful performance against Georgia Tech in the 2012 Sun Bowl. Without Coach O, the Trojans fall just short.

The pick: Fresno State 42, USC 38

BURKE: USC's Devon Kennard among NFL prospects to watch in early bowls

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