CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

USC had the means, the opportunity — but where did motive come from?

Defying expectations, Trojans play with great emotion despite yet another coaching change, routing Fresno State 45-20. How'd that happen?

Clay Helton

Clay Helton, USC's offensive coordinator and interim coach, holds the Las Vegas Bowl trophy after a 45-20 victory over Fresno State on Saturday. (Ethan Miller, Getty Images / December 21, 2013)

LAS VEGAS — USC deserves something for completing the strangest 10-win season in the history of college football.

How about some credit?

In the old days 10 wins got you a wire-service trophy and your team picture in the media guide.

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In 1974, former USC quarterback Pat Haden, now the school's athletic director, led the Trojans to a national title with 10 wins.

USC also won it all with 10 in 1932 and 1967.

SUMMARY: USC 45, Fresno State 20

This year's Trojan 10, though, came wrapped in a package that sort of looked like Pandora's Box.

Yet, the season most Trojans fans couldn't wait to be over ended with heel clicks and clinking glasses.

USC on Saturday soundly, almost absurdly, defeated Fresno State, 45-20, in the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The Trojans played with a purpose and passion that came from . . . where, exactly?

There seemed no logical reason for USC players to be whipped up in frenzy as they spontaneously chest-bumped during timeouts in a sub-level bowl game.

But it happened.

USC turned the shortest day of the year into Fresno State's longest day.

The question was . . . why?

Asked on the field what he'll remember about this season, sophomore tailback Javorius Allen said, "That we had three coaching changes. It was rough."

He said he learned to "never hold your head low because you never know what's going to happen."

Allen played Saturday's game "under" interim Coach Clay Helton.

"They overcame a third-string head coach today," Helton said.

Allen, and other Trojans, played the game "for" former interim coach Ed Orgeron.

Allen had his wrists taped with the "Coach" scribbled in pen.

"We did it for Coach O," he said.

Orgeron was not ill or anything; in fact, he had not even been fired. He walked out on USC after not being named head coach, long-term. Orgeron went 6-2 after Lane Kiffin was fired and galvanized the team with a huge November win over Stanford.

Orgeron's Trojans also lost to Notre Dame and UCLA.

See what kind of 10-win year this was?

How USC mustered inspiration out of all this is the reason you can't trust anyone under 21, especially football players.

Las Vegas oddsmakers had USC as only a six-point favorite.

The Trojans were supposed to be disinterested and Fresno State was supposed to have something to prove.

It was the exact opposite. The Trojans were so electrified they could have powered three casinos on the Las Vegas strip.

Fresno State could never match USC's athletic skill set, but the Bulldogs figured to have a motivational advantage. Wrong.

USC players had every excuse to start Christmas break early. They started the season with Kiffin as coach and ended it playing for coach No. 3 as coach No. 4, Steve Sarkisian, watched from the press box.

The players hardly seemed in a frame of mind to play football.

Yet, the Trojans came, played and conquered.

They danced around Sam Boyd Stadium like they were playing UCLA for a BCS bowl berth.

USC players call it "all hands on deck."

The Trojans came out aggressively with Helton promising to "fire every bullet that we had."

USC scored on its first possession and then thought it had recovered an onside kick only to have it negated by penalty.

That led to Fresno State's only first-half score.

USC countered with a series of big strikes.

Cody Kessler, with Fresno State defender Kyrie Wilson in his face, hit Nelson Agholor for a 40-yard touchdown.

That was followed by a 17-yard scoring pass to Agholor, a 24-yard touchdown run by Allen and a 40-yard scoring pass from Kessler to Marqise Lee.

It was 35-6 at the half.

Kessler, named the game's MVP, finished with four touchdowns passes.

"I would love to play for this man as long as I play," Kessler said afterward of interim No. 2, Helton — who, The Times learned, will be back as USC's offensive coordinator next year.

Sarkisian, the new, non-interim coach, spent his day as a very uncomfortable spectator.

"I was kind of pacing," he said. "I didn't know what to do with myself."

He watched USC's postgame trophy presentation from near a pylon at the north corner of the end zone.

He signed a couple autographs for USC fans and slapped a few players on the back as they retreated to the locker room.

A bystander told Sarkisian he could actually cross the end-zone line and step on the field.

"This is their moment, not mine," Sarkisian said.

OK, but it's his moment now.

USC heads to the off-season with a new coach and, incredibly, some momentum. The Trojans have only one more year of scholarship losses and key players returning to the roster.

USC also opens next season with an opponent it just might be able to handle: Fresno State.

The strangest 10-win season in USC history is now over.

Kessler said he'll head home to Bakersfield for the holidays and then "get right back to work."

He said, "This is a team I hope will be remembered forever in USC history."

Oh, it will be remembered, for the impressive win against Stanford and the train-wreck loss at Arizona State, after which Haden fired Kiffin.

"We still lost four games," Kessler said. "Next year we don't want that to happen."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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