Fresno State’s Josh Quezada, middle, tries to get through a gap between USC’s Anthony Sarao, left, and Devon Kennard in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013. USC won, 45-20. Photo by Craig Kohlruss/McClatchy-Tribune
The end of last season did not turn out as the Bulldogs had hoped.
Fresno State saw its Bowl Championship Series hopes end after a 62-52 loss to rival San Jose State that took the ‘Dogs out of contention for an invitation to a major bowl game.
However, the Bulldogs were able to bounce back and top Utah State 24-17 to capture a second-straight Mountain West championship under head coach Tim DeRuyter and earn a berth in the 2013 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. There, they battled against the Pac-12’s USC Trojans in the desert only to once again come up short of a bowl victory.
And in the first game of the season on Saturday in Los Angeles, the Bulldogs have the opportunity to avenge that loss.
“I know our players and staff are extremely excited,” DeRuyter said. “Our guys have been working diligently since January. I’m really impressed with our senior leadership, and we know we have a tall task this week playing a very talented, very well-coached USC team.
“We have a new team this year and a lot of new players, but we have quite a few that played in that game that weren’t embarrassed [by the loss]. They’d like a chance to show something different than what we did in December. We’ve had a great camp, and I think our guys are going to go down in resolve and see how it plays out.”
The ‘Dogs will be without some of their key components from last season, such as their record-setting aerial attack which featured Derek Carr, Davante Adams, Isaiah Burse and Marcel Jensen, who are all now playing for NFL teams.
No. 1 quarterback spot still up for grabs
With Carr out of the picture, the Bulldogs are hoping they can fill that void with either fifth-year Duke transfer Brandon Connette or senior Brian Burrell. The transfer from Duke started three games last season for a Blue Devils squad that finished 10-4 overall, 6-2 in Atlantic Coast Conference play and earned a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Connette was responsible for 26 total scores last season and feels that he can be a difference maker this season if he becomes the starter for the Bulldogs.
“I think we have some depth if you look at our quarterback position,” DeRuyter said. “We really feel good about Brandon and Brian. Both of them have different skill sets and both will play.”
Harper leads wideout corps
The receiver position has some holes to be filled, as Josh Harper is the only returning starter from last season. Looking to fill the shoes of Adams and Burse are third and second-year wideouts Aaron Peck and Da’Mari Scott, respectively.
However, Peck is the only Bulldog wideout that has the experience of playing against USC.
Peck, a junior, caught six balls last season against USC for 47 yards and figures to surpass those numbers and have even more of an impact this time around. The same goes for senior captain Josh Harper, who wasn’t able to play toward the end of the 2013 season due to injury.
With USC’s best corner, Josh Shaw, suspended, the Bulldog wideouts will look to take advantage of the senior’s absence.
Veteran defense hopes to slow down Trojans’ offense
Defensively, the Bulldogs return a couple key starters in each level of the defense with safety Derron Smith in the secondary, defensive lineman Tyeler Davison in the trenches and linebackers Karl Mickelson, Kyrie Wilson, Donovan Lewis and Ejiro Ederaine.
As for the Trojans, Cody Kessler will be back as the starting quarterback. The Bakersfield native accounted for 345 yards and four scores in the bowl game, and the ‘Dogs will look to limit his production this time around.
The Trojans’ receiver corps also returns standout wideout Nelson Agholor, who is regarded as one of the top pass catchers in the country.
Fresno State’s defensive backs will have their hands full in defending USC’s potent deep threats, Agholor and Darreus Rogers.
Agholor, in particular, posed the most problems for the Bulldogs secondary in the Las Vegas Bowl, stretching the field and accounting for five grabs, 94 yards and two touchdowns.
“[USC’s receivers] are really good,” Bulldogs defensive coordinator Nick Toth said. “We just have to be smart, we have to be aggressive, and we have to make sure to mix up coverage [when defending them]. We just have to be careful because all of their skill guys are really talented.”
Toth also said his unit has shown a lot of excitement this week to finally get the chance to compete against someone in a different colored jersey. He also cleared up as to who will get the start in the secondary, saying senior Curtis Riley and sophomore Bryan Harper will start at the corner spots but noted others will rotate in as well.
“Our guys are just excited to play,” Toth said. “They’re tired of hitting each other. It’s been a good week. We already know where our ones are so it’s really been about developing our twos. It’s been fun, and our guys are ready to play whether it’s USC or anyone else.”
Steve Sarkisian will be making his debut as head coach for the Trojans. The 40-year-old Torrance, Calif., native served as the head coach at Washington for the last five seasons (2009-2013) before resigning to accept the USC job.
“We’re going out to win a football game,” DeRuyter said. “We did not compete as well as we hoped to last December, and we’ve challenged our team with that. We have to go down there with the mindset that it’s going to be a 60-minute fistfight, and we have to show up for every minute of it.
“If we do that we’ll have a chance to compete.”