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Fresno State vs. USC game preview: Bulldogs look to avenge Las Vegas Bowl loss

The Bulldogs have had the offseason to reflect on last year's disaster in the desert, but does Fresno State have a fighting chance against a Rose Bowl contender?

Ethan Miller

WEEK 1: Fresno State Bulldogs vs. #15 USC Trojans

WHEN: Saturday, August 30 -- 4:30 PM, PST

WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; Los Angeles, CA (93,607)

2013 SEASON: Fresno State 11-2 (7-1 MWC), USC 10-4 (6-3 Pac-12)

TV: The game will be televised on Fox.

RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will broadcast the game in English and Spanish, respectively.  The USC broadcast can be heard in and around Los Angeles on 710 AM.

SERIES RECORD: USC currently leads the series 2-1, though technically it is 1-1 because the Trojans were forced to vacate their victory in 2005.  In the last meeting, the Trojans trounced the Bulldogs in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, 45-20.

WEB SITES:, Fresno State's official athletics site |, USC's official athletics site

SB Nation 2014 College Football Guide

History should treat the 2013 Bulldogs as one of the best teams in program history, but when Fresno State walked off the field at Sam Boyd Stadium eight months ago, the school-record eleven wins had to have been cold comfort in the face of unbridled revelry on the other sideline.  The 'Dogs were totally dismantled by Southern California in last December's Las Vegas Bowl, that is an inescapable fact.  The team that lines up against Troy's best next Saturday will be very different.  That, too, is inescapable.

The stars of yesteryear's offensive juggernaut have moved on and, while most of the questions left in their wake have been answered, some mystery remains about its potential this season.  The aggressive defense, pushed to the limit in 2013, now has the lion's share of experience and notable names.  Tim DeRuyter has met every expectation in his two years as Bulldogs head coach, but now the game has changed:  How do you prepare to steal a win on the road while retooling the most important part of a record-breaking attack until the eleventh hour?

On one hand, it's just good to have college football back in our lives.  On the other hand, you can't overstate how much the Central Valley has looked forward to Saturday.  Everyone is strapping up.  It's go time!

What to watch - Fresno State: The question on everyone's mind is who will be lined up under center when the Bulldogs take the field.  Brian Burrell was the presumptive favorite at the onset of fall camp despite the arrival of Duke transfer Brandon Connette, and both quarterbacks have improved their play enough in recent weeks that the coaches still haven't named a starter.  Coach Tim DeRuyter has gone so far as to intimate that both guys will get some playing time against the Trojans; Connette ran through this rodeo during the Blue Devils' run to the ACC Coastal title in 2013, so it wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.

It begs the question, though, of how DeRuyter will handle certain situations if he chooses this path.  For instance, in 2013 the 'Dogs were eighth in the Mountain West in third-down conversion rate (42.4%) and just 2-of-14 in the bowl loss against these Trojans, but the rushing offense was 24-of-40 (60%) with three yards or less to go and Connette himself earned 13 first downs on 22 such attempts (59%) a year ago.  Does this mean that Burrell will leave the field if Fresno finds itself in third-and-short?  Will it even matter if the Bulldogs plan on matching last year's aggressiveness on fourth down?  It carries a healthy amount of risk for second-guessing.

The quarterback competition will be rendered irrelevant, though, if the Bulldogs fail to stop Leonard Williams.  A consensus preseason All-American pick, Williams had a relatively quiet afternoon in last December's Las Vegas Bowl but figures to be a force for which Alex Fifta and Sean Rubalcava will be responsible.  Fifita earned the confidence of the coaches as the replacement for all-conference left tackle Austin Wentworth with a fine spring, while Rubalcava secured the left guard job in the fall and is likely to provide help on occasion.  Both will need to be on their game for the Bulldogs' up-tempo attack to be effective.

On the other side of the ball, the defense must find ways to test an offensive line that is still coalescing on the interior.  This may be one of the things that DeRuyter and defensive coordinator Nick Toth had in mind when they had Tyeler Davison work at nose guard throughout fall camp.  The all-conference performer could periodically lock horns with freshmen Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn, who will flank veteran center Max Tuerk.  To that end, Derron Smith might find himself in the box on occasion to bring pressure up the middle, as well.

When Cody Kessler drops back to pass, Fresno fans may be grateful they don't have to worry about Marqise Lee anymore.  However, that would overlook the fact that the Trojans still have tremendous depth at wide receiver.  Nelson Agholor is still around, and USC has dynamic freshmen in Ajene Harris and JuJu Smith as well as veterans like George Farmer.  The secondary took its fair share of lumps dealing with inexperience and injuries last year, and now the expectations have been raised for cornerbacks Bryan Harper and Curtis Riley and the guys behind them.  Don't be surprised if they respect USC's playmakers with a bit of cushion.  Whatever the 'Dogs do, though, Smith cannot have 18 tackles again or it will be another long afternoon.

What to watch - USC: You could make the argument that the Trojans were playing with house money by the end of 2013.  The Lane Kiffin era was such an unmitigated disaster that, once the expectations were removed, the team finally played closer to its true talent level.  What happens now that USC is once more a popular pick to win the Pac-12 South?  A slow start isn't out of the question -- just watch the first hour or so of last year's opener at Hawaii if you need some proof -- so despite the home field advantage it's easy to envision a scenario where Fresno holds a slight lead at halftime and sucks the air out of the stadium.

The remedy to avoid such a situation might lie in the powerful running game, a point of emphasis that Evan Budrovich of Conquest Chronicles recently touched upon.  Javorius Allen was the hammer that kept the Bulldogs honest in Las Vegas, but he's hardly the only contributor in Troy's backfield.  Tre Madden (provided he is healthy enough to play) and Justin Davis missed the bowl matchup, but both have gotten high marks for explosiveness and figure to test the speed of Fresno's linebackers from sideline to sideline.

It will also be interesting to see how USC's talented secondary defends against a wide receiver corps that has no obvious Davante Adams on which to focus.  It isn't likely (or at least Fresno State fans hope it isn't) that the 'Dogs abandon the running game again, and with six or seven capable pairs of hands, where do you position your best defenders?  Su'a Cravens, another preseason All-American, might see some time at linebacker or as a nickel back in addition to his role as a safety.  Josh Shaw has been suspended after his heroics were revealed to be a ruse, so Kevon Seymour and Chris Hawkins will spend most of the game assigned to Josh Harper and Aaron Peck on the outside.  The game may very well turn on who defends role players like Greg Watson and LeKendrick Williams in the slot.

Such an assignment might fall to Adoree' Jackson, who might be the Trojans' best freshman in 2014 (considering the number of freshmen already covered here, this should tell you something).  If Jackson isn't defending passes, he could be catching them from Kessler on offense or returning kicks on special teams.  A player who can do it all is rare, and the Bulldogs must account for him wherever he lines up on the field.

Key matchup - George Farmer vs. Bryan Harper: Nelson Agholor gave Fresno State fits as the number two receiver during their bowl loss, and the 6'2" Farmer could be even more of a nightmare now that he's 100% healthy. He is going to have a size advantage against whomever lines up across from him but Harper, an Arizona transfer who sat out the  2013 season, made big strides throughout the fall and should be up to the challenge.

For more coverage of Trojans football, be sure to check out SB Nation's USC blog, Conquest Chronicles.