USC’s aggressive game plan pays off in blowout victory

The fact Southern California went for it on fourth down and attempted both an onside kick and 2-point conversion during Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State at Sam Boyd Stadium ordinarily wouldn’t be much more than a footnote to a 45-20 victory.

That all three of those plays occurred within the game’s first six minutes speaks to the mentality the Trojans had under interim coach Clay Helton.

“We said going into this game that we would fire every bullet,” Helton said.

Helton explained the approach had far more to do with the need to relentlessly attack a high-scoring team like Fresno State than his status as an interim coach simply overseeing a talented roster for one game until Steve Sarkisian begins his reign at the helm of one of college football’s most storied programs.

Nothing could mask how loose the team was under Helton’s watch, however, when all of the players and coaches turned the USC sideline into something more resembling the dance floor at a Strip nightclub than a college football bench on several occasions during the first half.

“We call that ‘All hands on deck,’ ” USC sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler said of the team, coaches and support staff dancing, waving towels and and just generally whooping it up on the sideline. “That’s just something we do. Our guys get excited. It keeps the everyone pumped up and into the game.”

It helped a team that came into the game with huge question marks about its motivation look like it thought a national championship was on the line.

“It’s definitely exciting whenever you can go out and play with that attitude,” junior cornerback Josh Shaw said of the mentality. “As players, you just love that your coaches have the trust in you to dial up an aggressive game plan like that. We just came in here today and performed.”

Not that all of the risks paid off.

The Trojans converted the fourth-and-1 on the opening drive at the Fresno State 17-yard line with a 2-yard run by Kessler and scored three plays later on a 10-yard pass from Kessler to wide receiver Marqise Lee.

The 2-point conversion and onside kick didn’t work out the way Helton planned.

USC committed a false start on the 2-point try and settled for kicking the extra point. The Trojans then appeared to recover the onside kick, only to have the officials decide on a penalty against USC after a lengthy conference and give the ball back to Fresno State.

Still, the message had been sent.

“We came into this game with a plan to be ultra-aggressive in all three phases of the game,” Helton said. “It didn’t all work, but we wanted that mindset from the start, and our players fed off of it. We were going to take shots; we were going to bring pressures consistently against them.”

The results of that approach showed not only in the final score but on the stat sheet.

Kessler threw for 344 yards and four touchdowns, and the USC front seven harrassed Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr into a 30-for-54 performance for just 217 yards.

USC’s attacking mindset also might have forced the Bulldogs into making mistakes trying to counter. Fresno State failed on two fourth-down conversion attempts in the second quarter, including a fake punt that didn’t fool anyone and resulted in an incomplete pass thrown by safety Derron Smith.

The Trojans quickly countered, turning both stops into touchdowns.

Which meant more dancing.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.