With the departure of former head coach Pete Carroll to the NFL, and the unfortunate sanctions the USC Trojans had to face since 2010, came a lengthy and dramatic disruption in the notoriously prolific dynasty.
Many said that it didn’t matter who won this game, because the Holiday Bowl meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. While there might be a level of truth to that, both the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Trojans had everything to play for.
With the drama Nebraska fans, players, and assistants have had to face in the sudden firing of Bo Pelini, their players took the field at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif. on Saturday night, focused and determined to bring the trophy back to Lincoln as one last tribute to Pelini.
And for the Trojans, who have been ridiculed, written off, and even called a “clown college” by ESPN anchor John Anderson this past August, the focus was on showing how they have improved under sanctions (that were intended to cripple the program far beyond its current measure), and prove why you should never write USC off.
Interesting news came just before the start of the game that USC starting senior guard Aundrey Walker was not in uniform, giving the go-ahead for the Trojans to start three true freshmen and one sophomore on their offensive line. They quickly realized the Big 12 officiating crew had no patience for undisciplined play as the Trojans’ penalty yardage surged in the first half.
After several series of ping pong between both offenses, including a 17-yard touchdown by Nelson Agholor followed by a two-yard touchdown run by Javorius “Buck” Allen, the Trojans tipped the scale 24-17 at the half — including a second quarter shutout.
Kessler hit USC 3-way player Adoree Jackson who turned on the burners for a 71-yard touchdown, giving Kessler his 310th completion for the season which set a new USC single-season record. This was Jackson’s second long-yardage touchdown for the night, as he scored on a 98-yard kickoff return — the longest touchdown run in Holiday Bowl history — to give the Trojans a 7-3 lead in the first quarter.
In the first half, the Trojans’ front seven was able to contain star Nebraska running back, Ameer Abdullah, but after USC scored 21 unanswered points, Huskers’ senior wide receiver Kenny Bell laid a textbook block down that set up Abdullah to take it to the house on a 20-yard touchdown.
While Abdullah only had 27 carries for 88-yards and a single touchdown, a 65-yard pass by Huskers’ quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. to Jordan Westercamp, capped by a successful 2-point conversion had Nebraska down by just 11 points heading into the fourth quarter.
Nebraska shut the Trojans out in the fourth quarter, but USC sophomore safety Leon McQuay III came up big on back-to-back plays to prevent much needed conversions for the Cornhuskers. In what seemed like the longest 26 seconds ever for the Trojans, the clock hit :00 followed by a last minute attempt for the Huskers to at least try and get into field goal range. But just as the fireworks went off, the officials put :01 second back on the clock. Juju Smith and Nelson Agholor went deep in anticipation of a Hail Mary pass, and Agholor was able to knock Armstron’s pass down.
The Trojans survived a close one, and pulled away with a suspenseful 45-42 win.
The 38 points scored in the third quarter were the most points scored in a single quarter in the history of the Holiday Bowl.
While the defense seemed to show up when it really mattered, the Trojans’ special teams were out of sync throughout the game, giving Nebraska optimal field position, coupled by a blocked punt in the third that led to a field goal by Brown. Hindsight is 20/20, but had SC’s defense imploded on that drive giving Nebraska the touchdown, this game likely would have gone into overtime.
The Offensive Player of the Game was Cody Kessler. He finished the game 23/39 for 321-yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. Armstrong finished 32/51 with three touchdown passes, one interception, and one rushing touchdown. If you needed any indication of just how close this game was, those numbers ought to paint a vivid picture.
Between Nebraska and USC, a total of 1,030 all purpose yards and 87 points were amassed, so it was nothing short of entertaining. Interim head coach Barney Cotton and the Huskers have a lot to be proud of, as they came out with everything they had and made the Trojans earn it.
Given the Trojans won seven conference titles and two National Championships in Pete Carroll’s nine year career, it’s no coincidence that current USC head coach Steve Sarkisian — who was part of the Carroll regime during the glory days — is very determined to return SC back to its full strength.
Kessler will be returning to USC for his senior season, as well as offensive lineman Damien Mama, who was supposed to leave for his Mormon mission but decided to come back. As for the Defensive Player of the Game, DL Leonard Williams played very well, as did Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen. The Fight On faithful will have to wait a bit longer to find out their Draft intentions.
USC is now 4-0-1 all-time against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
*Section Photo credit to Winslow Townson, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Jake Roth, USA Today Sports.