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USC to take on Nebraska at Holiday Bowl in San Diego

The Trojans will make their first appearance in the game Dec. 27

Nelson Agholor
Nelson Agholor has been one of the standouts on this year's squad. (USC photo)

The No. 24-ranked USC football team has been selected to play in its first National University Holiday Bowl when it faces No. 25 Nebraska in San Diego on Saturday, Dec. 27. The 37th Holiday Bowl will kick off at 5 p.m. in Qualcomm Stadium and the Pac-12-vs.-Big Ten matchup will be shown live nationally on ESPN.

The Trojans, 8-4 overall, finished tied for second in the Pac-12 South Division at 6-3 under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian. The Cornhuskers went 9-3 and tied for second in the Big Ten West Division at 5-3, but head coach Bo Pelini was dismissed after the conclusion of the regular season and was replaced by former Oregon State head coach (and onetime USC assistant) Mike Riley. Interim head coach Barney Cotton will coach Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

“We are excited to go play in the Holiday Bowl and be the first USC team to do so,” said Sarkisian, who previously guided Washington to the 2010 Holiday Bowl, where his Huskies beat Nebraska, 19-7. “We get to play close to home, and our fans will show up in force. They’ll get to see a pair of Top 25 teams with storied football heritages. Having been to the Holiday Bowl when I was at Washington, I know this bowl experience will be a good one for our players and fans.

“We are hungry and determined to finish our season off well. We hope to use the momentum we have coming off our win over Notre Dame. But we’ll face a real challenge against a very good Nebraska team. Although they have made a coaching change, teams in transition like that usually band together and play well, as we saw last year here at USC and at Washington.

I know our players are excited about this opportunity.

Steve Sarkisian

“I know our players are excited about this opportunity. We’re looking forward to starting the process of game planning and getting ready to play another game.”

Fifth meeting

This will be just the fifth meeting between USC and Nebraska. Troy holds a 3-0-1 lead in the series. The teams last met in 2007, a 49-31 Trojan victory in Lincoln. This season, both teams faced Fresno State and posted near-identical victories (USC won 52-13 and Nebraska won 55-19).

USC, whose first three losses of 2014 were by a total of 13 points, including two that came on the opponents’ last play of the game, features an up-tempo offense that is highly ranked nationally in a number of passing categories and a strong defense that is in the national Top 25 in red zone defense, turnover margin and third down conversion defense.

Quarterback Cody Kessler, a finalist for the Unitas Golden Arm Award and Manning Award, is among the nation’s leaders in passing efficiency, completion percentage, touchdown passes, completions and passing yards while hitting over 70 percent of his throws with 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions. All-Pac-12 first team tailback Javorius Allen, a 1,000-yard runner who has eight 100-yard rushing outings this year, leads the league in all-purpose yards and is the only player in the nation with 12 games of 100-plus yards from scrimmage.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor, also an All-Pac-12 first teamer, is on the verge of 100 catches this year while ranking in the national Top 11 in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and he also has a school-record four career scoring punt returns. The young Trojan offensive line, with three true freshman starters, is led by All-Pac-12 first team center Max Tuerk.

USC’s defense is headlined by All-American defensive end Leonard Williams, a Hendricks Award finalist, along with inside linebacker Hayes Pullard, who could be the first Trojan in 35 years to lead USC in tackles for three seasons, and All-Pac-12 first team safety-turned-outside-linebacker Su’a Cravens, who has 16 tackles for a loss this year and six career picks.

USC has had to rely on numerous true freshmen because of depth issues (11 have played significantly, including eight who have combined for 52 starts) and several are freshman All-American candidates: Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Adoree’ Jackson (he has played three ways in seven games this year and is among the nation’s leading kickoff returners), wide receiver JuJu Smith (he has 51 receptions in 2014), Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao. No more than 57 recruited scholarship Trojans have suited up for any game in 2014 because of NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations.

Bowl tradition

The Trojans are among the nation’s premier bowl teams, with an overall postseason record of 32-16 (not including one win and one loss later vacated due to NCAA penalty). USC has lost just twice in its past 10 bowl games. Last year, Troy defeated Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, 45-20.

This will be the 14th different bowl for the Trojans, who have played in the Rose Bowl 32 times (not including two appearances later vacated). USC has the nation’s fourth-highest bowl winning percentage (.667) among the 83 schools that have made at least 10 bowl appearances. Its 32 bowl victories are second behind Alabama’s 34 for most in the nation (not including one win for both teams vacated due to NCAA penalty). Troy’s 48 bowl appearances are sixth most.

Nebraska, which will be appearing in its 51st bowl game (25 wins) and its fourth Holiday Bowl, features an offense that is in the national Top 20 in rushing and scoring and a defense that is especially stingy against the pass.

I-Back Ameer Abdullah, who has 1,523 rushing yards with 18 touchdowns this year, is in the national Top 15 in rushing, rushing touchdowns, all-purpose yards and scoring.

Elusive quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. directs the offensive attack, throwing for 2,314 yards with 19 touchdowns and running for 664 yards with another five scores. Wide receiver Kenny Bell earned All-Big Ten first team honors with 40 receptions and 5 TDs. Abdullah and Bell also both average about 24.0 yards returning kicks.

The Cornhusker defense is led by All-Big Ten first-team defensive end Randy Gregory, who has 10 tackles for loss (with seven sacks) among his 50 tackles, along with leading tackler linebacker Zaire Anderson (95 tackles, 12 for losses) and safety  Nate Gerry, who has five interceptions to go with his 85 tackles. Wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El has returned three punts for touchdowns this season.

USC fans can go to USCTrojans.com/bowlcentral for ticket and travel information for the Holiday Bowl.

Season tickets for USC’s 2015 football season, which includes seven home games (including against UCLA, Stanford, Arizona, Washington and Utah), are available for current and new season ticket holders online.

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