It’s been a minute or two since USC has been, well, USC. The primary reason behind current coach Steve Sarkisian's arrival in Los Angeles was the ultimate failure of his predecessor, Lane Kiffin. The Trojans were accustomed to glory prior to Kiffin, when they won seven conference titles and two national championships during former coach Pete Carroll’s nine seasons at the helm. But USC went 28-15 in three-plus seasons under Kiffin, all while the program fought through NCAA sanctions.
Fans in Southern California also haven’t enjoyed a bowl victory since Carroll’s tenure. That changed on Saturday with USC’s 45-42 win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. The Trojans aren’t yet contending for the Pac-12 or flirting with a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl. But they’ve taken the first step back to prominence, however small, under Sarkisian.
USC and Nebraska put on a shootout in San Diego. The teams combined for 1,030 yards of offense and 87 points, but it was defense that eventually settled this matchup. With his team staring at a 45-27 deficit late in the third quarter, Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for a touchdown and ran for another to cut USC’s lead to 45-42. Nebraska, which played under interim coach Barney Cotton after the school fired coach Bo Pelini earlier this month, got the ball back with less than three minutes to play. But USC's defense stuffed the Huskers on fourth-and-3 to take over possession with 2:35 remaining. After the Trojans ran some clock, Nebraska’s last-ditch Hail Mary fell flat.
The win was USC’s ninth in a season that saw its peaks and valleys. The Trojans beat Stanford, Arizona and Notre Dame this fall but lost to ranked Utah and UCLA squads. Quarterback Cody Kessler quietly had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in the country, throwing for more than 3,500 yards with 39 touchdowns. His one interception on Saturday was just his fifth of the season. Kessler announced after the game he’d return in 2015, and he’ll be one of the bigger pieces on a team working to regain its spot atop the Pac-12.
After the game, Sarkisian told ESPN’s Sam Ponder that he likes what’s in store for USC in the coming years. “I think our future’s very bright,” Sarkisian said. The Trojans aren’t quite back yet, but they’re on their way. Returning to postseason success is just the first step.