Las Vegas Bowl: USC looks to end topsy-turvy season on an upswing

Las Vegas Bowl: USC looks to end topsy-turvy season on an upswing
USC's Soma Vainuku, center, is congratulated by teammate Leon McQuay III, left, after blocking a punt in a win over Colorado in November. The Trojans' trek to the Las Vegas Bowl hasn't been an easy one. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — They played under or met four USC head coaches in less than three months.

They shed tears of elation in a frenzied victory celebration after beating Stanford at the Coliseum, tears of sorrow on the steps of the McKay Center as a beloved figure exited the program.


On Saturday, USC players will try to put all of that out of their minds — or use it as motivation — when they play No. 21 Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium.

"We've done something remarkable in the sense of how we handled everything," quarterback Cody Kessler said, "but we still have a game to win."

It won't be easy, not against a Fresno State team that was one victory from playing in a Bowl Championship Series bowl game and features quarterback Derek Carr, college football's passing-yardage and total offense leader.

And the 9-4 Trojans must find energy after a tumultuous and draining regular season.

The players endured the firing of Lane Kiffin, reveled in the fun atmosphere created by Ed Orgeron, mourned Orgeron's departure after Athletic Director Pat Haden hired Steve Sarkisian, and have since embraced Clay Helton as their coach for the bowl game.

Helton, USC's offensive coordinator, has jokingly referred to himself this week as "a third-string head coach."

But he has made finishing the season with 10 victories a mantra for himself, assistants and players.

"We want this team to be remembered," he said. "It's not a wasted year. . . . To get that 10th win would be something very special and would hopefully catapult USC to even bigger things under Coach Sarkisian."

USC didn't need another distraction, but it got one during the run-up to the bowl game when USC and Washington compliance officials began an investigation into allegations that an assistant on Sarkisian's Washington staff paid for private tutoring and online classes for a recruit.

If the allegations, first reported in the Times, are found to be true, Sarkisian could face penalties, including a suspension.

The players, however, appear unfazed. They say they are focused on Fresno State and that there will not be a repeat of last season's Sun Bowl debacle in El Paso, where the Trojans lost to Georgia Tech to complete a historic collapse from a No. 1 preseason ranking to a 7-6 finish, including losses in five of their last six games.

"It will be completely different," junior safety Dion Bailey said of the Trojans' expected game-day mood. "Everybody is just excited about the whole experience. Nobody's had anything bad to say.

"I mean if you don't go BCS, what better place to end your season than Vegas?"

Fresno State (11-1) would have gone to a BCS game had it not lost to San Jose State, 62-52, in the regular-season finale.

Coach Tim DeRuyter's team bounced back with a victory over Utah State in the Mountain West Conference championship game.

The Bulldogs pulled off what many consider the greatest victory in program history when they defeated USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl. Fresno State also pushed the Trojans to their limit in a 50-42 loss at the Coliseum in 2005.

Now the Bulldogs get another shot at USC.

"Our fan base is fired up," DeRuyter said. "It's almost like they would rather play USC than go to a BCS bowl, to be honest with you."

Last year, Kessler stood on the wind-chilled sideline as the uninspired Trojans lost the Sun Bowl.

He expects a different ending Saturday.

"It means a lot more to this team," he said. "Especially the way we've come together."

Twitter: @latimesklein