Fresno State seemed untouchable for most of the season, the Bulldogs on a path to a Bowl Championship Series game.
Southern California, one of college football’s storied programs with a healthy following in Southern Nevada, also seemed like nothing more than a dream since the Trojans appeared here 12 years ago.
Now both are back, a dream matchup for the Las Vegas Bowl in the Dec. 21 game at 12:30 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium. ABC will televise the game.
“I think we should all be excited,” executive director Dan Hanneke said. “USC’s got such a great history. A lot of people in the valley haven’t seen an almost iconic type school play at our game. It’s been a while, so we’re really excited in the way the cards fell.
“I went to the (Mountain West title game Saturday) night, and I can tell you first hand that Fresno State fans are really enthusiastic, and they’re excited to be coming to Las Vegas.”
Fresno State’s absence from the Las Vegas Bowl has been even longer than USC’s. The 21st-ranked Bulldogs (11-1), who won the Mountain West championship by beating Utah State 24-17, last appeared in this game in 1999. They lost to Utah 17-16.
USC (9-4) would just as soon forget its last appearance here as well. The Trojans were beaten 10-6 by Utah on Christmas Day in 2001.
That Trojans team had quarterback Carson Palmer and safety Troy Polamalu, and under first-year coach Pete Carroll were on their way to re-establishing a championship program.
This year’s USC team will come to Las Vegas in transition, with offensive coordinator Clay Helton running the team before newly hired Steve Sarkisian fully takes over. Sarkisian was in the Las Vegas Bowl last season, coaching Washington.
But the Trojans played well down the stretch, closing by winning five consecutive games before losing 35-14 to UCLA in the regular-season finale. After that loss, USC hired Sarkisian, and interim coach Ed Orgeron stepped away rather than remain on staff. Orgeron took over when Lane Kiffin was fired during the season.
After a season of largely unfulfilled expectations, USC has the chance to go out on a high note and perhaps build for next year.
“We have a lot out there,” Helton said. “This is something that we started at the beginning of the season, had some adverse conditions hit us, continued as our motto says to fight on. Every time that this team’s faced a little bit of trouble, a little bit of adversity, they’ve found a way to fight back every time. I can’t wait to see them at the bowl game.”
As for Fresno State, the future is more uncertain with star quarterback Derek Carr wrapping up his outstanding college career. He leads the nation with 4,866 yards and 48 touchdown tosses.
Though the Bulldogs are thrilled with winning the inaugural conference title game, they no doubt would prefer to prepare for the Fiesta Bowl or some other BCS game. That chance evaporated with a 62-52 loss at San Jose State on Nov. 29.
So even if the Las Vegas Bowl wasn’t the Bulldogs’ first choice, the opponent is enough to get Fresno State’s attention.
“I am psyched,” Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. “I know we’ve got our hands full against a very talented USC team, but I’m a competitor. I love going against the best. I grew up wanting to be a Trojan. It didn’t work out that way because they didn’t want me. But to get a chance to compete against the likes of USC with the talent that they have and their history and tradition, it’s a great opportunity for Fresno State.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.