By Gary Klein Los Angeles Times
LAS VEGAS — The most tumultuous season in USC history ended Saturday with a show of resolve and celebration in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Trojans danced joyously on the sideline and the field during the second quarter against Fresno State.
Receiver Marqise Lee exulted in the end zone after catching two of Cody Kessler’s game-record four touchdown passes, and defensive players leaped high for chest bumps after making key stops against the Bulldogs’ high-powered offense.
And USC players and coaches celebrated en masse after a 45-20 victory at Sam Boyd Stadium that capped an improbable 10-4 season for a team that endured multiple coaching changes.
“A team,” Kessler said of the Trojans, “that hopefully will be remembered forever.”
When time expired, many Trojans players rushed onto the field to animatedly pose for a group photo, moving their hands and arms into various renderings of the letter “O.”
The players were saluting Ed Orgeron, one of four coaches they played under or met during a three-month span.
Orgeron energized the Trojans for eight games after taking over for the fired Lane Kiffin. He left the program when Athletic Director Pat Haden hired Steve Sarkisian, leaving offensive coordinator Clay Helton to take over as interim coach and lead the Trojans to victory.
“I remember when Coach O left, linebacker Hayes Pullard said, “He said, ‘Make sure you don’t lose your energy. Still go in there like I’m still your head coach.’ We just took that initiative and kept the train rolling.”
Lee, who might have played his final game for USC, said the Trojans also won for Kiffin.
“Coach Kiffin is the one who brought us together,” he said. “Coach O is the one who kept us together, so at the end of the day we did this for the both of them.”
And coaches and players said the victory was also for seniors, who endured coaching changes and NCAA sanctions during their careers.
The Trojans, junior safety Dion Bailey said, were “a definition of our school’s motto,” Fight on.
“I don’t think any other program in the country could produce under circumstances that we’ve been under,” he said. “You win 10 games, you’ve got to respect that team.”
Saturday’s performance was a marked contrast to last season’s Sun Bowl debacle in El Paso, where the Trojans lost to Georgia Tech to complete a historic collapse from a No. 1 preseason ranking to a 7-6 finish, including losses in five of their last six games.
“We came into this game wanting to make the Trojan family proud,” said Helton, who will remain on Sarkisian’s staff.
Kessler made plays in and out of the pocket, connecting with Lee for two touchdowns and receiver Nelson Agholor for two more as the Trojans built a 35-6 halftime lead.
USC’s defense stifled Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, who entered the game as the national leader in passing yards and touchdown passes.
Fresno State pulled to within 38-20 early in the fourth quarter when safety Derron Smith returned an interception for a touchdown, but tailback Javorius Allen rushed for his second touchdown to clinch the victory.
The Trojans outgained the Bulldogs, 487-254.
“Physically, they were the most impressive team we’ve played the last two years,” said Fresno State Coach Tim DeRuyter, whose team finished 11-2. “They play inspired.”
He watched most of the game from a suite with Haden, but he was on the field for the end of the game.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” he said.
Tight end Xavier Grimble said the Trojans’ finish was a testament to their mental toughness.
“We lost some games, but I think we kept hope alive,” he said. “A lot of people lost hope in us and that’s what we wanted to do, we wanted to keep fighting.”