Bowl week is officially upon us and the Fresno State Bulldogs have already made their way to Las Vegas and checked into their hotel. As the Bulldogs prepare for their final showdown of the season against the University of Southern California Trojans, it's time to take a look at how this game will play out and who will ultimately prevail.
The Bulldogs enter this game with as good of a team as they have ever had. Fresno State receivers have the speed on the outside to keep USC cornerbacks honest and their offensive line has been amazing the entire season, only allowing 11 sacks on the year. To beat a team like USC, you're going to need to give your quarterback time to find the open man.
The Trojans will be sending a litany of highly-recruited defensive players after Fresno State's relatively unknown offensive line. Left tackle Austin Wentworth will have his work cut out for him protecting the left side of that line from the pass rush of Leonard Williams and Devon Kennard, and those are just two of the potential guys coming from the left side. The Bulldog line had trouble with the creative fronts and stunts of San Diego State head coach Rocky Long. They will need to have a good showing against USC's front-seven.
Bulldog quarterback Derek Carr is going to have an amazing opportunity to showcase exactly how great the mental portion of his game is in the overall scheme of what Fresno State does on offense. For people thinking that this is a gimmick offense, nothing could be further from the truth. This offense is Carr's show and he diagnoses plenty of things at the line of scrimmage. Carr's ability to breakdown the tendencies of Trojan defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is going to be critical to the success of the Bulldogs.
Carr is going to see a number of creative fronts from Pendergast. There were times when Pendergast will look like he's bringing the house, only to drop 10 players in coverage and blow up an obvious passing situation. He did this several times in the Cal game. Diagnosing wrinkles like this will be paramount to Carr's ability to matriculate the ball down the field.
Utilizing the quick passing game and running back screens will be critical for Fresno's success early on. With that said, USC will likely try to take these things away from them early to force them into being a more conventional passing team. Taking a couple of shots early on a young and inconsistent Trojan secondary might be a good way for Carr to counter this.
This is the type of game that favors the play-making abilities of Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse. While Josh Harper has been fantastic for the Bulldogs this year, those two provide a little something extra when it comes to unexpected and explosive types of plays that result in large gains or touchdowns.
Carr would be wise to recognize that USC has a pretty rich history of allowing opposing tight ends to dominate games. Arizona State tight end Chris Coyle averaged 17.4 yards a catch on five receptions when they played the Trojans. UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria averaged 15.3 yards per reception on four catches in the 2012 game. There are more examples, but this will suffice.
Okay, fine. One more. Stanford tight end Zach Ertz had an absurd average of 23.7 yards per catch in USC 2012 loss on the Farm. He only had three catches, but he finished the game with 71 yards and a touchdown.
The pattern starts to become clear: target Marcel Jensen just enough to make it matter, but not enough to make it predictable. USC has the speed and talent at the linebacker/safety position to undercut a throw and take it to the house. Jensen might be a better option in some instances because the Trojans are likely to offer up Leon McQuay as safety help for the corner guarding Adams. They did something similar against Oregon State stud wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Should the Trojans offer safety help, Carr could work the middle of the field with a quick passing game to move the ball easily.
On defense, Fresno State is going to have to challenge the center-right of the Trojan offensive line. With starting center Marcus Martin out and right guard Aundrey Walker also sitting the game out, USC will turn to Abe Markowitz and John Martinez, respectively. Bulldog defensive end Nikko Motta and linebacker Ejiro Ederaine need to do what they've been doing all season, but add an extra degree of intensity to see if the two replacements are up to the challenge.
This is a Bulldog defense that led the nation in team sacks. Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler has shown that he can produce in the pocket (Stanford), but that he's also very easily rattled and knocked off his game with a little pressure (UCLA). Disguising pressure and finding different ways to stunt the linebackers will be critical to the success of defensive coordinator Nick Toth.
The corners for Fresno are going to have to step up and try to keep the speed of USC's Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor in front of them, while still getting pressure up-front to prevent USC's Team MVP, Buck Allen, from running wild on them. The Bulldogs did a great job of stopping Utah State and their rushing attack, but the Aggies didn't have guys like Lee and Agholor running routes.
The post-season is often decided by line play. As good as USC has been on the defensive side of the ball, their offense has been inconsistent all year long. Fresno State has shown an ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks while keeping their own upright. USC has not yet shown they can do this consistently and they're using an interim-interim head coach in Clay Helton. No real way to know how having a third coach in one year will affect a highly emotional Trojan team.
With all of that said, there's no way that USC takes the Bulldogs with a grain of salt. The Trojans will eventually come to play, but Fresno should be able to get off to an early lead. Troy is known for some slow starts. Carr is known for anything but a slow start. Expect USC to make this a very competitive game, but that they will be doing so from behind in the score.
Prediction: Fresno State - 38, USC - 34
Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more updates on the 2013 Fresno State Bulldog season.
Josh Webb is a special contributor to FSBulldogs.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @BulldogsTwist.