Published Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 | 6:04 p.m.
Updated Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 | 7:36 p.m.
USC and Fresno State were both alive in the race to get into a BCS bowl game three weeks ago.
While those hopes failed to come to fruition, the two California schools snagged a December trip to Las Vegas as a consolation prize. The Trojans and Bulldogs will meet in the 2013 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 21 at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Dan Hanneke, the game’s executive director, announced the long-rumored matchup Sunday evening at the Hard Rock Hotel.
"We're really excited the way the cards fell, and that we ended up with both of these schools," Hanneke said.
The Las Vegas Bowl gets the first selection among eligible Mountain West teams. Hanneke and his staff officially extended Fresno State an invitation Saturday night after it defeated Utah State 24-17 in the Mountain West championship game.
"We were going to see how the game it went," Hanneke said. "If it was a close game and Utah State happened to win, we probably still would have chosen Fresno State. But if it would have been a blowout Utah State win, then we probably would have changed our minds.”
As recently as two weeks ago, it looked like Fresno State wouldn’t be an option. At 11-0, the Bulldogs seemed BCS-bound before getting upset 62-52 in their regular-season finale against San Jose State.
USC was more of a long shot to break into one of the four most prestigious postseason games, not including the national championship, but still in the running until recently.
By virtue of a 6-1 run under interim coach Ed Orgeron — who took over for the fired Lane Kiffin — the Trojans inched their way within a half-game of first-place in the Pac-12 South division late in the year.
A 35-14 home loss to rival UCLA in the final week of the regular season pushed USC back a notch, ultimately helping the process of landing the Trojans in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Bowl gets the fourth pick of eligible Pac-12 teams not headed to the BCS.
"USC has such a great history," Hanneke said. "It's great to have the opportunity to bring them to people here in the valley who haven't seen an iconic-type school play in our game in a while."
USC enters the game in a state of flux. Athletic Director Pat Haden signed Steve Sarkisian as the Trojans’ new coach last week, but he will not be on the sidelines.
Sarkisian, whose Washington team lost 28-26 to Boise State in last year’s Las Vegas Bowl, will watch from afar as offensive coordinator Clay Helton serves as USC’s second interim coach this season.
The Trojans own one of the top-rated defensive units in the nation — sixth in Football Outsiders’ F/+ ratings and 16th in total defense — which they’ll need against the Bulldogs. Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr leads the nation in passing yards with 4,866 and touchdowns with 48.
"He studies tape unlike any other player I’ve ever been around," Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said of Carr. "He really exudes class and character like a guy who’s twice his age. He’s the poster child for our program.”
One of the Trojans tasked with slowing Carr will be local product Torin Harris, a senior cornerback who graduated from Palo Verde in 2009. High school rival Xavier Grimble, who graduated from Bishop Gorman in 2010, starts on the other side of the ball at tight end for USC.
Grimble has 23 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns in his junior season.
"Being an offensive coach, Xavier Grimble is one of my favorite guys," Helton said. "He's like my favorite toy. He's a personnel nightmare as far as the receiving game. Torin has been great for us, also. He’s one of those guys who goes in and makes plays every time he’s called upon. Sometimes he’s the starter. Sometimes he’s the backup. But every time he’s been in, he works his tail off in a professional manner. The city of Las Vegas should be very proud of both those two kids.”
Fresno State and USC both have one previous Las Vegas Bowl appearance. In 1999, Fresno State lost 17-16 to Utah.
Utah also beat USC 10-6 two years later in Pete Carroll’s first year at the helm for the Trojans.