LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just a few weeks after Fresno State appeared poised for a BCS trip and a breakthrough season, the Bulldogs ended up busted in Vegas.
Derek Carr didn’t attempt to hide his disappointment when his college career ended with a 45-20 loss to Southern California in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday.
The record-setting quarterback also wouldn’t allow one loss to erase every good memory from a landmark season in Fresno State history.
“I thought our guys were ready to go,” Carr said. “There wasn’t any lack of focus on any side of the ball. USC just beat us.”
Carr passed for just 217 yards and two TDs under constant pressure in his final game at Fresno State (11-2), which fell behind 35-6 at halftime. With their fifth straight bowl defeat, the Bulldogs failed to secure the first 12-win season in school history.
Right down to the script “Bulldogs” on the helmet, Fresno State wore the same uniform combination sported by the team that beat USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, one of the biggest wins in school history. But the Mountain West champions still haven’t won a bowl game since 2007, losing six of their last seven.
“I think if you look at the body of work, this team won 11 ballgames and won a second straight conference championship,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “There’s critics out there. Everyone has got an opinion. I know in my heart we had a really, really fine football team. We didn’t play our best game today, and that goes on me. I’ve got to do a better job of getting our guys ready.”
Cody Kessler passed for a career-high 344 yards and a bowl-record four touchdowns for the Trojans and interim coach Clay Helton, the third of USC’s four head coaches in less than three months.
Kessler outdid Carr, his fellow Bakersfield native and friend, setting the Las Vegas Bowl record for TD passes before halftime and finishing 22 for 30. USC scored three touchdowns in a nine-minute burst in the second quarter, and Javorius Allen clinched it with his second TD run with 4:44 to play.
Carr went 30 for 54 under constant pressure from the blitzing Trojans, who eliminated Fresno State’s running game and twice stopped the Bulldogs on fourth downs in the first half. Fresno State’s two TD catches by Isaiah Burse and Davante Adams both came on short drives resulting from USC mistakes on special teams, and Derron Smith returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown.
Carr, the nation’s leader in yards passing and total offense, became the fourth player in NCAA history to surpass 5,000 yards passing and 50 TD passes during the game. But Carr leaves Fresno State without a bowl victory, never getting the Bulldogs moving against one of the nation’s best pass defenses.
“Blame me. Blame me always,” Carr said. “I’ve got to do a better job of leading, and I’ve got to do a better job of getting our guys in better spots. That’s my fault.”
Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor had two touchdown catches apiece, Allen rushed two more scores, and the Trojans (10-4) answered every question about their own motivation by repeatedly dancing on the sideline during the storied program’s first postseason victory since 2009.
From Kessler’s smooth offense to a dynamic defensive effort against Fresno State’s FBS-best passing game, USC was uniformly outstanding in its only game under Helton.
The offensive coordinator filled the one-game gap between coaches Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian on the Trojans’ coaching carousel, but USC picked up right where Orgeron left off after its desultory start to the season under Lane Kiffin. The Trojans ended up celebrating under confetti in the north end zone, joining friends and family on a chilly desert night in front of a sellout crowd at Sam Boyd Stadium.
After the teams traded touchdowns on their opening drives, the Trojans blocked Fresno State’s extra point attempt — and it started a deluge.
Agholor caught TD passes of 40 and 17 yards for the Trojans’ next two scores. Allen made a 24-yard TD run through bad tackling midway through the second quarter, and Lee turned a short pass into a 40-yard TD with 37 seconds left in the half.