Bowl win a fitting conclusion for USC


LAS VEGAS -- It was an appropriate setting for USC's unforgettable, unpredictable and altogether crazy season to end.

After all, what city encapsulates extreme highs and lows better than Las Vegas?

USC's season played out like a maddening night at the tables where you wade through one dealer after another, hoping to settle on one who will finally make you a winner.

In USC's case, the Trojans are hoping the magic number is four.

Since 1889, USC has never had more than one head coach in a single season. Over the past four turbulent months to finish out this season, the Trojans have had four head coaches.

On Saturday, USC's third head coach, Clay Helton, led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, while USC's fourth head coach, Steve Sarkisian, watched in the press box, anxiously waiting to take the reins of the team after the game was over. Somewhere in Louisiana, USC's second head coach, Ed Orgeron, watched the game that USC players dedicated to him, and somewhere in California, USC's first head coach this season, Lane Kiffin, watched as the players he recruited beat his alma mater.

Saturday's game not only ended the most unusual and tumultuous season in USC history, but also ended an odd three-week stretch in which Helton attempted to be the team's third head coach this season while Sarkisian was around the team and players, preparing to take over as soon as the game was finished.

Sarkisian was not only around the team during practices at USC the past two weeks, but was also a constant presence this weekend at the team hotel and bowl practices. He even met with the players' parents in a hotel ballroom to discuss his philosophy and plans for next season.

It would have been easy to assume USC players would view the trip to Las Vegas as a vacation at the end of the season rather than the final game of the year. The images of the Trojans getting embarrassed last year at the Sun Bowl and in their previous trip to the Las Vegas Bowl served as a perfect template for this game. It's always a smart bet to go against USC when playing in a lesser bowl against a lesser opponent.

Not this year's Trojans.

They may not have finished the season with the trophy they wanted or even the coach they wanted, but they never gave up.

No USC team in recent memory has embodied the school's motto to "Fight on!" more than this group. It fought on through NCAA sanctions, a quarterback controversy to start the season and three head coaches during the season to finish with 10 wins for only the second time since 2008 and the school's first bowl win since 2009.

There was little doubt that USC was ready to play from the opening kick, after which the Trojans drove 65 yards on 12 plays, culminating with a 10-yard pass from Cody Kessler to Marqise Lee. It was only the beginning of a big day for both players, as Kessler completed 22 of 30 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns and Lee had seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

As Lee gave his gloves and wristbands to fans on the field, he still had a hard time putting into words what he and his teammates went through at the end of this season.

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