It's too bad college football, unlike major league baseball, doesn't allow a closer. The USC Trojans could sure use a Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen at this point.
What an entertaining and frustrating Holiday Bowl proved beyond all else, is that after 13 games under Steve Sarkisian they still don't know how to close.
They allowed a very average Nebraska team to come from 18 points down to almost make it feel like Arizona State all over again. Only when Nelson Agholor -- a wise insertion, by the way -- batted away the last Cornhusker pass could Trojans fans sigh with relief.
So what exactly did that wild 45-42 San Diego adventure actually mean in the whole context of Sarkisian's first season?
Not much. It only showed us again what we already knew. This is a 9-4 team of supremely gifted players and alarming little discipline. It is a team that can run up points faster than Adoree Jackson runs past opponents. Yet it is a group with all the killer instinct of an Adam Sandler.
It will be interesting to see how all that translates into 2015, but if you're asking what grade Sarkisian deserves after his first season as USC's head coach, I'd probably waver somewhere between a B-minus and a C-plus.
Let's get one thing straight, by the way: Nebraska is not the best team the Trojans played this season, as Sarkisian tried to tell us the other day. It is not even close. The Cornhuskers' defense contains more open space than the San Diego Zoo, and while tailback Ameer Abdullah is a great player, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. wouldn't even rank among the top half of the Pac-12's passers.
Yet take away those two spectacular plays by the electric Mr. Jackson -- the 98-yard kickoff return and 71-yard reception -- and USC probably loses the game.
How does that happen? Well, primarily because the penalty-infested Trojans weren't playing much defense, themselves. Sure, Leonard Williams was his usual menacing self, but in a basic set with few, if any, blitzes, there was little resistance to a Nebraska offense that was able to roll up 525 yards.
Defense should be Sark's priority going into 2015. He needs to get more involved with it. He needs to let the players know he cares about that side of the ball, too.
It is probably too much to ask for him to give up his cherished play-calling duties on offense, but there is still a real danger of this becoming a one-dimensional football program, and that is certainly something Sarkisian doesn't want.
As usual, it's a lot more fun to discuss the Trojans' offense. If Agholor bolts early for the NFL, as is generally expected, it will leave a definite void. The guy has been a tremendous go-to receiver.
Now that we know quarterback Cody Kessler won't be joining him in leaving early, it isn't a huge cause for concern, especially when it seems so obvious now that Jackson, the freshman All American cornerback, needs considerably more playing time on offense. Jackson and fellow freshman JuJu Smith should be involved in plenty of exciting plays in the next few years.
It might not be quite so easy to replace tailback Javorius Allen, whose 152 yards the other night pushed his total to 1,489 yards for a truly exceptional junior season. Justin Davis is a good, young back with a flair for the big play, but he has yet to prove he can consistently pound for the crucial yards the way Allen did. Maybe Tre Madden, who was once ahead of Allen on the depth chart before getting injured, will handle that role.
One thing that might help is to have the tight end take on a more prominent role in the offense, and there were hints of that finally happening in San Diego. Freshman Bryce Dixon caught 4 passes for 44 yards, including a 20-yarder for a touchdown.
The happiest part of USC's San Diego experience is that it had to enhance recruiting. Getting that kind of exposure on a nationally televised stage can only help when it comes to luring four and five-star athletes, especially those from out of state.
In the end, though, what really happened in the Holiday Bowl is that Sarkisian's Trojans opened up a big lead and then barely hung on to beat another less-than-impressive opponent.
What it felt like, more than anything else, was a USC version of Groundhog Day.
SAN DIEGO -- Notes, quotes and anecdotes from Qualcomm Stadium after the USC Trojans (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-4, 5-3 Big Ten) 45-42 in the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday.
USC head coach Steve Sarkisian comments:
The assessment: “First of all, I’m happy for our team. You know, we’ve been through a lot this year. We’ve had a couple just excruciating losses, and to come out tonight and win at the very end, we’ve laid a good foundation in Year One of where we’re headed as a program. Our future, and I’ll say it again, is ridiculously bright.”
On the final Nebraska Hail Mary: “We’ve been through it! We got JuJu (Smith) and Nelson (Agholor) on the field. Nelson made a heck of a play to go attack the football. At the end of the day, I mean, you can only get burned so many times, I guess. So, let’s just get the ball on the ground. That’s kinda what I was hoping for.”
On the 2014 season: “First of all, it was a total success. We won nine games, and we were Holiday Bowl champions. I don’t change. Every day I wake up and I drive down the 110 freeway to come to work and I embrace the opportunity you have to be the head football coach at USC.”
Nebraska interim head coach Barney Cotton comments:
The assessment: “I think (USC) was everything we thought they would be. They were physical and skilled, a big-play offense and a physical defense. I thought it was a good battle out there. It could have gone down and went either way by the end. I was proud of the way our guys fought back, and it was a heck of a football game.”
On the game’s pace: “We just wanted to play fast. We took what they gave us. We would like to run the ball effectively, but on the other hand, a lot of those passes were run-pass options.”
On field position: “Well, we did have good field position. We did get some points off it, but we should have got more points out of it. But you’re playing against a good defense, and, you know, when you look up at the scoreboard at the end of the game, I think we were better executing.”
More notes and anecdotes:
Key to victory: The Trojans held off a Nebraska Hail Mary on the last play of the game to defeat the Cornhuskers 45-42 as Trojans All-Pac-12 wide receiver Nelson Agholor switched to defense to bat away Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s final pass attempt.
The offensive explosion: The Trojans scored 45 points against the Huskers on Saturday. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Trojans were averaging 35.1 points per game.
The offensive coordinator: On the Trojans' big win, USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton said, “This was a fabulous win and we played our hearts out. When the offense struggled, the defense picked us up. We needed offensive balance tonight. We couldn’t be one-sided. (Tailbacks) Buck Allen and Justin Davis did a great job.”
No decision: After the game, Agholor announced in a quick interview he had not decided whether to head to the NFL. He said he still had time to make an informed decision.
Defensive issues: The Trojans defense allowed 42 points to the Huskers on Saturday. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Men of Troy were allowing 23.8 points per game.
Defensive MVP: Trojans All-American defensive tackle Leonard Williams was named the Holiday Bowl Defensive Player of the Game. Afterward, Williams said, “It felt great to be honored as that and seen as that from my peers and coaches and teammates as the defensive player of the game. I don’t give myself the respect of earning that award, I give it to all my guys that I was out there battling with and have fun with.”
Offensive dominance: The Trojans had 515 yards of total offense against the Huskers on Saturday. Prior to the Nebraska game, The Men of Troy were averaging 452.8 offensive yards per game.
Holiday Bowl records: The 79 points scored in the first three quarters is a new Holiday Bowl record, as well as the 38 combined points scored in the third quarter. Also, with 12 penalties in the game, the Trojans tied four other past Holiday Bowl teams.
An individual record: Adoree' Jackson’s 98-yard kickoff return was the longest in Holiday Bowl history, breaking the old record of 93 yards by Victor Ike of Texas in 2000.
The end zone flip: After Jackson’s 98-yard touchdown return in the first quarter, the USC true freshman did a front flip into the end zone. Jackson said, “What was going through my mind is actually my dad called me before the game and he told me to do something for him, and that’s pretty much what I was doing is something for him because he wasn’t able to make the game. That’s what was going through my mind, give him something.”
Cotton on Jackson: Regarding Jackson, Cotton said, “He’s an explosive guy. If you don’t wrap up early, it’s too late to wrap up late.”
Defensive issues: Against the Huskers on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed a total of 525 yards. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Trojans were allowing 398.2 yards per game.
A linebacker’s take: Regarding the Nebraska offense, Trojans junior linebacker Anthony Sarao said, “They run a great offense. They force you to read it and they’re physical. Their running back (Ameer Abdullah) really keeps his feet moving, not like most college backs.”
Rush hour, Part 1: Against the Huskers on Saturday, the Trojans rushed for 194 yards. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Men of Troy were averaging 158.2 yards rushing per game.
The Buck stops here: On his 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, USC's Javorius “Buck” Allen (152 rushing yards in the game) said, “I told (receiver) George Farmer I was going to score earlier and Coach Sark called the play. I went here and then went there, but I could feel the last 3 yards that one of their guys was behind me as I was getting into the end zone. The offensive line did a great job. This young line is going to be great.”
The red zone: The Trojans were 3-of-3 in the red zone while Nebraska was 6-of-7.
Stopping Gregory: Trojans true freshman offensive left tackle Toa Lobendahn was matched against Nebraska star defensive end Randy Gregory and held his own. Lobendahn said, “I just tried to move my feet. He’s a great player who will be in The League.”
Rush hour, Part 2: Against the Huskers on Saturday, the Trojans defense allowed 144 net yards rushing. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Men of Troy were allowing 132.5 rushing yards per game.
Counting the house: Saturday’s announced attendance was 55,789.
Passing the test: On Saturday against the Huskers, the Trojans passed for 321 yards. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Trojans were averaging 294.6 passing yards per game.
Kessler will return: After the game, Trojans junior quarterback Cody Kessler, who was the Holiday Bowl’s Offensive MVP (321 passing yards and three touchdowns), announced he’d be returning for his senior season. Kessler said, “Yeah, I am absolutely coming back. I told Sark, and I told some of the guys, and my family knew. My main thing was I didn’t want to take away from the bowl game. There’s a bunch of other guys that have decisions to make, and I didn’t want to take away from the senior class.”
Under pressure: Kessler was sacked three times (23 yards) by the Huskers defense, while the Trojans sacked Armstrong twice (15 yards).
Air defense: On Saturday against the Huskers, the Trojans defense allowed 381 passing yards. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Trojans pass defense was allowing 265.7 yards per game.
The flag is up: The Trojans were penalized 12 times for 97 yards. Prior to the Nebraska game, the Trojans were averaging 77.2 yards in penalties per game.
Top tacklers: Corner Josh Shaw and defensive tackle Leonard Williams led the Trojans defense with nine tackles each.
Next game: The Trojans will open the 2015 season Sept. 5 in the Coliseum against Arkansas State.
Under Armour All-America High School Football Game
Location: Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
Date: Friday, Jan. 2
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
Practice dates: Dec. 29-Jan. 1 (Dec. 30-31 practices air at 5 p.m. PT on ESPNU)
Roster: Click here
TE Tyler Petite (Moraga, Calif./Campolindo) -- Black team
ATH Terry Godwin (Hogansville, Ga./Callaway) -- White team
LB John Houston Jr. (Gardena, Calif./Serra) -- Black team
RB Ronald Jones II (McKinney, Texas/McKinney North) -- White team
WR DaMarkus Lodge (Cedar Hill, Texas/Cedar Hill) -- Black team
CB Iman Marshall (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) -- White team
DL Tim Settle (Manassas, Va./Stonewall Jackson) -- White team
CB Kendall Sheffield (Missouri City, Texas/Thurgood Marshall) -- White team
LB Roquan Smith (Montezuma, Ga./Macon County) -- White team
WR Equanimeous St. Brown (Anaheim, Calif./Servite) -- White team
* Tight end Chris Clark (Avon, Conn./Avon Old Farms) was originally scheduled to play in this game, but he will now sit out due to injury. His interest in USC has reportedly waned following the commitment of Petite.
USC targets tentatively expected to announce decision:
Jones -- Notre Dame, USC
Settle -- Louisville, Oklahoma State, USC, Virginia Tech, Washington State
Sheffield -- Alabama, Florida State, LSU, Texas A&M, USC
Location: Alamodome (San Antonio, Texas)
Date: Saturday, Jan. 3
Kickoff: 10 a.m. PT
Practice dates: Dec. 29-Jan. 1
Roster: Click here
DL Jacob Daniel (Fresno, Calif./Clovis North) -- West
QB Sam Darnold (San Clemente, Calif./San Clemente) -- East
OL Chuma Edoga (Powder Springs, Ga./McEachern) -- East
DB Isaiah Langley (Pleasanton, Calif./Foothill) -- West
DL Christian Rector (Los Angeles, Calif./Loyola) -- West
QB Ricky Town (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure) -- West
LB Porter Gustin (Salem, Utah/Salem Hills) -- West
DB DeChaun Holiday (San Marcos, Calif./Mission Hills) -- West
ATH Donte Jackson (Jefferson, La./Riverdale) -- West
LB Osa Masina (Salt Lake City, Utah/Brighton) -- West
ATH Ykili Ross (Riverside, Calif./Poly) -- West
DB Marvell Tell (Encino, Calif./Crespi) -- West
* USC defensive line target Rasheem Green (Gardena, Calif./Serra) is on the West roster, but he will not participate due to injury.
USC targets tentatively expected to announce decision:
Ross -- Arizona State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon, USC
Tell -- Oregon, Texas A&M, USC
Location: StubHub Center (Carson, Calif.)
Date: Sunday, Jan. 4
Kickoff: 6 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Sports 1
Practice dates: Dec. 31–Jan. 3
Roster: Click here
DL Noah Jefferson (Henderson, Nev./Liberty) -- West
WR Tristan Payton (Jacksonville, Fla./First Coast) -- East
TE T.J. Wheatley Jr. (Buffalo, N.Y./ Canisius) -- East
USC targets tentatively expected to announce decision:
SAN DIEGO -- During the postgame news conference at Qualcomm Stadium following USC’s 45-42 win over Nebraska in the National University Holiday Bowl, Nebraska interim head coach Barney Cotton was asked to comment on the play of USC true freshman Adoree' Jackson.
“What’s the number?” Cotton asked. “I’m not a name guy.”
After Saturday night, here’s guessing Cotton will remember the name.
Whether he was returning kicks, catching touchdowns or making plays in the secondary, Jackson was one of the most exciting and dynamic players on the field Saturday.
“I keep battling [defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox because I want him on offense,” Sarkisian said. “He would have had four touchdowns if he was playing on offense.”
That drew a “yep” from Kessler and a playful head shake from Williams.
USC will likely lose two of its marquee offensive players to the 2015 NFL draft. No one will be shocked when running back Buck Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor make their believed intentions official. If the Holiday Bowl was in fact their respective swan songs, then they exited nicely. Allen rushed for a game-high 152 yards and two touchdowns, while Agholor hauled in seven balls for 90 yards and a score.
But USC’s up-and-comers showed the offense is going to be just fine if -- or when -- those guys leave. Jackson opened the USC scoring with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter. He added three catches for 73 yards, including a jaw-dropping 71-yard touchdown from Kessler. Actually, it was a 1-yard pass from Kessler. Jackson did the other 70 on his own.
But it wasn’t just Jackson making plays. JuJu Smith had three catches for 66 yards. Bryce Dixon caught four balls for 44 yards and a touchdown. The Trojans used 11 true freshmen in significant roles this season, including eight who have combined for 58 starts. Consider that number, with the fact that USC suited up just 50 scholarship players for its bowl game, and it’s not unreasonable to think USC should contend for the Pac-12 South Division next season.
“Our future -- and I’ll say it again -- is ridiculously bright,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to continue to get better and continue to recruit. We’re going to recruit great players. We’re going to develop the players that we have in our program. We’re going to compete for championships. That’s why you come to USC. Get ready for 2015.”
As for the game itself, it was typical Holiday Bowl: High-scoring and high on drama. Even when the Trojans went up 45-27 near the end of the third quarter, there weren’t many who felt the issue was resolved.
Sure enough, Nebraska scored at the end of the third and midway through the fourth to cut the game to 45-42. It wasn’t until Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s Hail Mary with one second left on the clock was harmlessly batted away by Agholor that the Trojans could celebrate. Some might recall Arizona State's topping USC earlier this season on a last-second Hail Mary.
“We’ve been through it,” Sarkisian said, which drew a laugh from the room. “We got JuJu and Nelson on the field. Nelson made a heck of a play to go attack the football. At the end of the day, I mean, you can only get burned so many times, I guess. You know? So let’s just get the ball on the ground. That’s kind of what I was hoping for.”
The game was accented by one big play after another, as the teams combined for 1,040 yards of offense -- including a bowl-record 38 points in the third quarter. Armstrong threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in a contest that felt more like a Pac-12 conference game than a Pac-12/Big Ten bowl.
“I was proud of them and the way they responded offensively because we didn’t totally chuck our game plan [when trailing],” Cotton said. “I’m glad we stuck with doing what we had done to get there, and we just came up a little short at the end.”
How the game was won: On big plays -- because it was the Holiday Bowl. Defenses need not apply. The Trojans were the faster, more athletic team (though not by much), and it showed in the form of explosive plays. Adoree' Jackson scored on a kickoff return and a long touchdown reception. Buck Allen turned 4-yard runs into long touchdowns. Four of USC's touchdowns were 20 yards or longer. That's not to say Nebraska didn't have some explosive moments of its own, as the teams combined for more than 1,000 yards offense.
Turning point: Trailing 45-42 with 2:31 remaining, Nebraska went for it on fourth-and 3 at the USC 31 but was turned away. The Trojans took over and were able to milk down enough clock to preserve the three-point win. A last-second Hail Mary effort from Nebraska fell short as time expired.
Game ball goes to: Jackson, a true freshman, was the most dynamic player on the field. His 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave the Trojans a 7-3 lead after Nebraska jumped ahead on a field goal. Then he took a Cody Kessler pass 71 yards that stretched USC's lead to 31-17 in the third quarter. Oh yeah, he also added six tackles on defense.
Key stat: The teams combined for 38 points in the third quarter, a Holiday Bowl record. Considering the Holiday Bowl's penchant for crazy, that's pretty impressive.
Play of the game: The Jackson kickoff return takes top honors in a game with a lot of big plays.
What's next: Nebraska begins life anew with Riley running the show. Some Trojans -- namely, Leonard Williams, Nelson Agholor and Allen -- have some decisions to make about the NFL draft.
SAN DIEGO -- Adoree' Jackson scored on a 98-yard kickoff return and a 71-yard pass from Cody Kessler, and No. 24 Southern California blew most of an 18-point, third-quarter lead before beating No. 25 Nebraska 45-42 in the Holiday Bowl on Saturday night.
Kessler threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns for USC (9-4), which was playing Nebraska (9-4) in a bowl game for the first time.
USC stuffed De'Mornay Pierson on fourth-and-3 from the USC 31 with 2 1/2 minutes left. Nebraska had one final shot but Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s desperation pass as time ran out was knocked down inside the 10.
Armstrong threw for 381 yards and three TDs.
USC had 515 yards of total offense and Nebraska finished with 525.
4Q NEB T. Armstrong Jr. pass,to B. Reilly for 12 yds for a 1ST down,lat. to K. Bell for -2 yds for a 1ST down
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
Final Illinois 18 Louisiana Tech 35 Final Rutgers 40 North Carolina 21 Final North Carolina State 34 UCF 27
Final Cincinnati 17 Virginia Tech 33 Final 15 Arizona State 36 Duke 31 Final Miami (FL) 21 South Carolina 24 Final/OT Boston College 30 Penn State 31 Final Nebraska 42 24 USC 45
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State