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Fresno Teaches USC Humility 101 : Freedom Bowl: Bulldogs’ 98th-ranked defense intercepts three passes and limits Trojans to 183 yards in a 24-7 victory.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC realized its worst nightmare Tuesday night.

Fresno State stunned the Trojans, 24-7, before a crowd of 50,745 in the Freedom Bowl at Anaheim Stadium, dominating the last 2 1/2 quarters after spotting its heavily favored opponent a 7-0 second-quarter lead.

“I’m not shocked,” USC Coach Larry Smith said. “I’m never shocked in college football. You people (in the media) are because you don’t understand it. But in college football, I’ve said many times, anyone can beat anyone.”

Fresno State proved as much, finishing with a substantial advantage in almost every major statistical category.

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The Bulldogs, second only to Houston in total offense during the regular season, ran for 241 yards, passed for 164 and enjoyed an edge of more than 15 minutes in time of possession while racking up 24 first downs.

USC, against a defense ranked among the worst in college football, ran for 88 yards, passed for 95, accumulated 14 first downs and was held scoreless in the second half by a team that gave up an average of nearly 30 points a game, including 46 in a loss to Oregon State.

“We really never got our offense in sync in the second half,” Smith said. “Defensively, we just didn’t get ourselves off the field.”

USC quarterback Rob Johnson was especially ineffective, completing only seven of 18 passes for 95 yards, with three fourth-quarter interceptions.

USC, which played the second half without injured flanker Curtis Conway, converted one of nine third-down opportunities.

After a 5-1-1 start, USC finished with a 6-5-1 record, losing its last three games--against UCLA, Notre Dame and Fresno State.

Fresno State, which earned a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship in its first season after moving from the Big West, ended the season with a six-game winning streak to finish at 9-4.

USC seemed to wear out against the determined Bulldogs, who scored two late touchdowns.

“What creates emotion is success and the crowd,” said Smith, whose bowl record in six seasons at USC is 1-4. “And let’s face it, that was a Fresno State crowd, and we never had much success.”

The game was said to be the biggest in Fresno State history, and about 600 buses brought about 25,000 fans from the San Joaquin Valley.

They saw the nation’s highest-scoring offense held without a point through the first quarter, a first for the Bulldogs this season, but the big surprise was that Fresno State held the Trojans scoreless, too.

Fresno State’s defense was 98th among 107 Division I-A teams.

But against a defense that ranked 95th against the run and 73rd against the pass, USC scored only one touchdown, breaking a scoreless tie with 12:31 to play in the second quarter on a one-yard run by Deon Strother.

Strother’s dive into the end zone on his only carry capped a 49-yard drive that was set up by Conway, who returned a punt 22 yards.

Fresno State, which had a first-quarter field-goal attempt blocked by Jason Oliver, pulled even on its next possession, driving 70 yards in 11 plays. Fullback Lorenzo Neal scored on a one-yard run, ending a drive that featured two key passes by quarterback Trent Dilfer.

On fourth and seven at USC’s 33-yard line, Dilfer passed 10 yards to Tydus Winans. On the next play, Dilfer hooked up with flanker Malcolm Seabron for a 20-yard gain despite taking a vicious hit from Lamont Hollinquest.

The half ended in a tie, 7-7, but Fresno State had a decided edge statistically with 196 yards, 122 rushing.

USC accumulated only 92 yards in the first two quarters.

Johnson, who didn’t complete a pass until midway through the second quarter, connected on only two of eight attempts in the first half for 13 yards. One of his completions went for minus three yards.

Time of possession favored Fresno State almost two to one.

The second half started more promisingly for USC, although the Trojans were without Conway, who sprained his right knee shortly before halftime.

With Conway on the sideline, Travis Hannah returned the opening kick 50 yards for a Freedom Bowl record. Then, on the Trojans’ first play from scrimmage, Johnson combined with Johnnie Morton on a 27-yard pass play. A 10-yard run by Estrus Crayton put the Trojans at Fresno State’s 16, but the drive stalled and Cole Ford missed a 37-yard field-goal try.

USC didn’t threaten again.

Fresno State took the lead for good on its next possession when Derek Mahoney kicked a 43-yard field goal to make it 10-7.

The Bulldogs’ next possession went three plays and out, but they got the ball back when Crayton, after fielding Mahoney’s punt, fumbled after being hit by Jamie Christian.

Chris Williams recovered at USC’s 38-yard line. The Bulldogs failed to capitalize, however, and gave up the ball on downs. USC turned the ball over again on its next possession when Sam Watson intercepted a pass at the goal line on the first play of the fourth quarter, returning it 27 yards.

USC didn’t cross midfield again until the final minute, by which time Fresno State had added two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the second one set up by an interception by James Burton.

Freedom Bowl Notes

USC’s 183 yards on offense were its fewest of the season. . . . USC guard Kris Pollack re-injured his left shoulder during the second quarter and did not return. He is scheduled to undergo reconstructive surgery Monday. . . . The crowd of 50,745 was short of the record of 51,422, established in 1986 when UCLA played Brigham Young. . . . The mother of Curtis Conway, USC’s all-Pacific 10 Conference flanker, expects him to announce that he is giving up his senior year of eligibility to make himself available for the NFL draft. “The way he’s been acting, I think he’s coming out,” Anita Conway said Tuesday. “That’s just my thought. I got a good feeling he’s coming out.”


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