December 16, 2014

Nebraska stunned many - including its own players - with the firing of Bo Pelini and hiring of Mike Riley.

The 25th-ranked Cornhuskers will face one of their toughest challenges of the season without either coach as they face No. 24 USC in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Saturday night.

Nebraska (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) announced Pelini's dismissal on Nov. 30, two days after a 37-34 overtime win at Iowa. Pelini won at least nine games in all seven seasons at the helm. He failed to win a conference title, however, and Nebraska lost seven games by 17 or more points as a ranked team since 2011 - the most by a ranked team in that span.

"We just, for whatever reason, weren't good enough in the games that mattered against championship-caliber opponents," athletic director Shawn Eichorst said. "And I didn't see that changing. It wasn't a lack of effort by him or his staff or our wonderful players, but I think new leadership is in order."

Many Cornhuskers didn't seem to feel the same way, however.

"Biggest mistake you ever made," quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. tweeted. "Bo was the best coach I've ever had and I'll always appreciate the things you taught me."

Riley's hiring raised eyebrows given his 5-7 record this season and 93-80 mark over 14 years at Oregon State. Pelini was 67-27 at Nebraska.

Riley will not be officially in charge until after the bowl game, however. Barney Cotton, who served in a number of capacities as an assistant under Pelini, will led an interim staff of Pelini's assistants at Eichorst's request.

"I really have a very simple job," Cotton said. "That's to help our players finish out the best way and help this coaching staff stay cohesive and united and keep loving each other."

Slowing down USC's passing attack may not be so simple.

The Trojans (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) ended their regular season with a 49-14 home win over Notre Dame on Nov. 29. Cody Kessler threw for 372 yards and six touchdowns a week after USC's was denied a chance to play in the Pac-12 title game with a 38-20 loss at then-No. 11 UCLA.

"Our future is ridiculously bright," first-year coach Steve Sarkisian said. "We're going to be really good, and we're not going anywhere."

Kessler completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 3,505 yards, 36 TDs and four interceptions, finishing with the nation's fourth-highest passer rating at 168.8, breaking Mark Sanchez's school record of 164.6 from 2008.

The junior was particularly impressive in the second half of the season, leading the FBS with a 188.6 mark in his final six games. Kessler, though, was not named among the 16 semifinalists for the Davey O'Brien trophy eventually won by Oregon's Marcus Mariota - who also won the Heisman Trophy - as the nation's best quarterback.

"At some point, people are going to recognize him," Sarkisian said. "You can't ignore what this guy is doing."

Kessler's favorite target Nelson Agholor mirrored his quarterback's success down the stretch, catching 55 passes for 818 yards and seven TDs over his final six games. Agholor had 42 receptions for 405 yards and four TDs in his first six contests.

The Cornhuskers finished third nationally with a 100.6 opponents' passer rating, allowing 12 TDs with 12 interceptions. Eight of the 11 FBS teams they faced finished 51st or worst in pass efficiency, however.

Michigan State finished with the best passer rating of its opponents at 18th, and the Cornhuskers limited Spartan quarterback Connor Cook to 11-of-29 passing for 234 yards with a TD and a pick.

Nebraska hopes its own offense will be rejuvenated after a 17-point fourth-quarter rally forced overtime at Iowa. Armstrong threw for four TDs after totaling five in his previous six games while Ameer Abdullah ran 13 times for 106 yards. He had been held to 168 on 44 carries in his previous three contests while being hampered by a sprained left MCL.

USC is 32-16 all-time in bowls, excluding two vacated games, and 8-2 in its last 10.

Nebraska is 25-25 in bowl games, including a 2-1 mark in the Holiday Bowl. It lost its last appearance 19-7 against Washington in 2010.

The Trojans lead the all-time series 3-0-1, winning the last meeting 49-31 at home on Sept. 15, 2007.

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