Southern California’s players and coaches twice danced wildly on their sideline and the field just in front of it.
During the first half.
They had plenty to celebrate Saturday, putting in a performance so one-sided that the only mystery was how a team so talented lost four games.
Cody Kessler threw a Las Vegas Bowl-record four touchdown passes, all before halftime, and the Trojans romped to a 45-20 victory over No. 21 Fresno State before a sold-out crowd of 42,178 at Sam Boyd Stadium.
This was the first Pac-12 Conference victory in this game since Arizona beat Brigham Young 31-21 in 2008.
USC (10-4) didn’t waste time establishing its dominance, rolling to a 35-6 halftime lead.
“We wanted to come out and establish ourselves from the beginning,” USC interim coach Clay Helton said.
Kessler was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after completing 22 of 30 passes for a career-high 344 yards. His four scoring passes broke the bowl’s record of three held by four others, most recently Brigham Young’s Max Hall in 2009 against Oregon State.
Kessler attributed his success to an offensive line that overcame the loss of two starters giving him time to find receivers, and a group of receivers who he called “freak athletes.”
“They make plays,” Kessler said. “That is why they come to SC.”
Marqise Lee, who had shoulder and knee injuries early in the season that affected his production, showed why he won the Fred Biletnikoff Award a year ago. He caught seven passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in what could be the junior’s final game as a Trojan.
Nelson Agholor caught the other two touchdown passes of 40 and 17 yards, finishing with five receptions for 94 yards.
Fresno State (11-2) couldn’t handle USC’s speed on either side of the ball, and the Trojans exploited that advantage by outgaining the Bulldogs 487 yards to 254, Fresno State’s lowest total of the season.
“Physically, they were the most impressive team we’ve played in the last two years, and they played inspired,” Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter said. “They played very, very well.
“We just couldn’t get in a rhythm. We did a better job in the second half, but we dug ourselves too big of a hole.”
USC kept the heat on Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, the two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. He was under pressure throughout, missed open receivers and finished with 217 yards on 30-of-54 passing. Carr, who appeared to have an injured left shoulder, also had two touchdown passes and an interception.
“Blame me. Blame me always,” Carr said. “Don’t blame anybody else. I have to do a better job of leading and getting our guys in better spots. That’s my fault.”
One of the major questions entering the game was the Trojans’ motivation, and they showed how good they can be when energized and focused.
This was a team that underperformed early in the season, and after starting 3-2, coach Lane Kiffin was fired after landing at Los Angeles International Airport following a 62-41 loss at Arizona State.
The Trojans rallied under interim Ed Orgeron, winning five games in a row before losing 35-14 to UCLA. Then when USC hired Steve Sarkisian to be its new coach, Orgeron resigned, and Helton was put in the position to coach the bowl game.
Helton will remain on staff as the offensive coordinator, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday, and he insisted during the week the Trojans would be ready to play Fresno State.
Were they ever.
“We talked about what type of men we were going to be in the face of adversity,” Helton said. “Were we going to use it as an excuse to be on your third-string head coach? Were we just going to let up? Or were we going to say, ‘You know what, we’re not going to fail today?’ These guys did a tremendous job of executing the game plan.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.