LAS VEGAS -- Going into Saturday afternoon's Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, the spotlight was shining squarely on Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr -- and for good reason.
A two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year who is considered a likely high first-round NFL draft pick, Carr led the FBS in a number of key offensive statistics, including total offense and passing yards.
But on Saturday, Carr's good friend, USC sophomore Cody Kessler, stole the show.
Kessler threw for a career-high 344 yards and a Las Vegas Bowl-record four touchdowns as USC jumped out to a 29-point halftime lead and cruised to a 45-20 victory at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Trojans (10-4), playing for their third coach of the season, did it with an aggressive, blitzing defense that had Carr on his heels for much of the game. Carr completed just 30 of 54 passes for 217 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
"He hit some guys in the hands; we had some drops," Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. "They did a good job of covering our receivers. I think it was a combination of those things. He didn't have his best game, clearly, but it was more of a factor of the guys playing against us than it was him being off because of an injury or something."
So what went wrong?
"It's always hard to answer those questions without watching the film," said Carr, who grimaced and appeared to be favoring his left (non-throwing) shoulder as he sat down for the post-game press conference. "That's cliché but it's true. There's a lot of details out there, but blame me. Don't blame anybody else. I've got to do a better job of leading and I've got to do a better job of getting our guys in better spots. That's my fault."
Kessler, who completed 22 of 30 attempts, had touchdown passes of 10 and 40 yards to Marqise Lee and 40 and 17 yards to Nelson Agholor -- all in the first half. That broke the Las Vegas Bowl mark of three touchdown passes that had been held by four players, most recently BYU's Max Hall in 2009 against Oregon State.
Javorius Allen rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns and Andre Heidari added a 39-yard field goal for the Trojans, who finished with 487 yards and never led by fewer than 18 points in the second half.
"Derek is a great quarterback, but that is what our defense has done all year," said Kessler, who, like Carr, played high school football in Bakersfield, Calif. "Our defense is so good at stopping the run, stopping the pass, confusing teams. It makes a good quarterback frustrated. I see it every day in practice."
Fresno State (11-2), which entered the game leading the FBS in passing yards per game (409.8) and third in total offense (570.6), finished with just 254 yards. USC cornerbacks Josh Shaw, who had an interception, and Kevon Seymour, who had seven tackles and a pass breakup, were both outstanding playing mainly man-to-man press coverage on Fresno State receivers.
"Obviously we didn't play our best game today," DeRuyter said. "You've got to give USC credit. ... Physically they were the most impressive team that we have played in two years. And they played inspired."
That was the big question for the Trojans coming into the contest. Ed Orgeron, the popular interim coach who rallied the team to an impressive 6-2 finish after Lane Kiffin was fired, declined to coach the bowl game when USC athletic director Pat Haden passed him over for the permanent head job in favor of Washington's Steve Sarkisian. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton coached the bowl game.
"Just really proud of our football team, proud for our Trojan family," Helton said. "We came into this game wanting to make the Trojan family proud. I can't tell you how excited I am about the accomplishments they made."
NOTES: USC finished with the 25th 10-win season in school history, which doesn't include a 12-win campaign in 2005 that was later vacated due to NCAA sanctions. ... Carr became the fourth quarterback in FBS history to throw for 5,000 yards (5,083) and 50 touchdowns in a season when he connected with Davante Adams for a 23-yarder early in the third quarter. It was Adams' 24th touchdown reception of the season, tops in the FBS. ... Fresno State punter Garret Swanson had one of the few Bulldog highlights in the first half when he booted a Las Vegas Bowl-record 69-yard punt. ... Fresno State didn't attempt a run until early in the second quarter and finished with just 37 yards on six rushes. ... Uko was ejected for a personal foul early in the third quarter. ... The crowd of 42,178 was the second largest in Sam Boyd Stadium history and also the second largest in Las Vegas Bowl history, topped only by the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl when BYU defeated Oregon 38-6 in front of 44,615 fans. That contest included additional temporary stands in the north end zone.