By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
LAS VEGAS — Although Fresno State fell one win short of a BCS berth, the Bulldogs still got a high-stakes trip to Vegas for the final game of quarterback Derek Carr’s career.
The 21st-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) landed in the Las Vegas Bowl against Southern California (9-4) today, kicking off bowl season with a compelling California matchup in the shadow of the Strip.
USC is on its third head coach of a tumultuous season, but the talent-rich Trojans are still one of the nation’s highest-profile programs.
With a victory over USC to clinch the first 12-win season in school history, the Bulldogs would stake a compelling claim as the best team ever to suit up in the Central Valley.
“The team is pretty fired up about being here,” Fresno State receiver Davante Adams said. “They’ve got a great program, world-renowned, so it’s going to be a lot of fun going against these guys.”
Adams and Carr are excited about the challenge they’ll face when the Bulldogs have the ball at Sam Boyd Stadium. While the nation’s best passing offense decimated nearly every defense it faced, USC’s undermanned defense still put together an impressive season against the Pac-12’s high-scoring teams, ranking 14th in the nation in scoring defense.
“I don’t like to give anybody too much credit until we go out and face them,” said USC safety Dion Bailey, who might head to the NFL after the game. “They’ve got a talented offense, but I don’t think there’s any defense in the country that’s like ours.”
After every dip and peak in a season that puts the New York-New York casino’s roller coaster to shame, the Trojans say they’re only focused on completing a 10-win season. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton is running the team after Ed Orgeron resigned earlier this month, angry about losing the permanent job to Steve Sarkisian despite going 6-2 as Lane Kiffin’s interim replacement.
The Trojans all seem to admire Helton, who joined the program along with Kiffin in early 2010, but several players made their Vegas motivations clear this week.
“Everybody in that locker room wants to win for Coach O,” USC cornerback Josh Shaw said. “Even Coach Helton has talked about it. We still go through the same routines now that he isn’t here, and we’re going to do it again. The only thing different is Coach O won’t be the one talking to us.”
Five reasons to watch the most compelling matchup on the first day of bowl season:
FRESNO SHOWCASE: The Mountain West champions got to the brink of a BCS breakthrough, but a defensive meltdown in a 62-52 loss to San Jose State ruined it. Fresno State is eager to embrace this chance to show off in front of a national audience, but the Bulldogs also realize USC could cause similar problems for Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter’s defense with the combined talents of receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor, quarterback Cody Kessler and tailback Javorius Allen.
THE FABULOUS BAKERSFIELD BOYS: Kessler and Carr have more in common than their position. They’re both from Bakersfield, Calif., and they’ve known each other for years. Carr is two years older than Kessler, who solidified his hold on the USC job with a midseason surge. Carr holds nearly every significant Fresno State record for his position at the school where Kiffin was a backup quarterback in the 1990s.
SARK IN THE WINGS: Sarkisian is in Vegas as an observer, waiting to take over the program after the game. Sarkisian, hired two days after the Trojans’ regular season ended with a loss to UCLA, is allowing the remnants of Kiffin’s coaching staff to run bowl preparations, but he’ll be watching his returning players closely — and he might be scouting the Bulldogs, who will be his first opponent next season.
LONG TIME COMING: For all of its recent success under Pat Hill and DeRuyter, Fresno State hasn’t won a bowl game since 2007, losing five of its last six bowl games overall. Carr is eager to go out with his first bowl victory, which would make him the first senior quarterback to win a bowl game at Fresno State since Jeff Tedford did it in 1982.
LEE’S BIG FINISH?: Almost everybody expects Lee to head to the NFL after his underwhelming junior season, but the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner should be healthier than he’s been in many weeks when he faces Fresno State’s suspect pass defense. Lee needs 12 catches to pass Robert Woods as USC’s career receptions leader, and Helton might be wise to give him the opportunity.