LAS VEGAS – Cody Kessler realizes USC could have quit after the Trojans’ first coach firing of the season.
Or after their second coach resigned.
Or before their fourth coach in less than three months took over.
But the quarterback and teammates stuck together, no matter who happened to be in charge. That tenacity got them a blowout victory in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Kessler passed for a career-high 344 yards and a bowl-record four touchdowns in the Trojans’ 45-20 victory over 21st-ranked Fresno State on Saturday.
“This is a team that hopefully will be remembered forever in USC history,” said Kessler, the game’s most valuable player.
Offensive coordinator Clay Helton was USC’s interim coach, filling a one-game gap between Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian on the Trojans’ coaching carousel.
USC picked up right where Orgeron left off after its desultory start to the season under coach Lane Kiffin. The Trojans (10-4) ended up celebrating under confetti in an end zone, joining friends and family.
Kiffin was fired in late September, and interim coach Orgeron revived the program with a 6-2 finish to the regular season before resigning in anger when USC hired Sarkisian away from the Washington Huskies for the full-time job. Sarkisian watched the bowl game with USC athletic director Pat Haden in a box above the sellout crowd of 42,178 at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“I was kind of pacing,” ex-USC assistant Sarkisian said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Sarkisian watched the postgame trophy presentation from near an end-zone pylon. He signed a couple of autographs for fans and slapped a few players on the back as they headed to the locker room.
A bystander told Sarkisian he could actually step on the field.
“This is their moment, not mine,” he said.
Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor had two touchdown catches apiece, Javorius Allen rushed for two more scores, and the Trojans — who were listed as six-point favorites — answered every question about their motivation by dancing on the sideline during the storied program’s first postseason victory since 2009.
“I can’t say how proud I am of this team,” Helton said. “We had to see: Were we going to use it as an excuse to be on our third-string head coach, or were we just going to say, ‘We’re not going to fail today.’ ”
Derek Carr passed for 217 yards and two touchdowns in his final game at Fresno State (11-2), which fell behind 35-6 at halftime.
“They had a heck of a run until this point,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said of his Bulldogs. “Physically, they (the Trojans) were the most impressive team we’ve played the last two years.”
Of the loss, Carr said, “Blame me. Blame me always. I’ve got to do a better job of leading, and I’ve got to do a better job of getting our guys in better spots. That’s my fault.”