In one of the more intriguing bowl games of 2014, the No. 24 USC Trojans (8-4 overall; 6-3 Pac-12) face the Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3 overall; 5-3 Big Ten) on Dec. 27 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego in the 2014 National University Holiday Bowl. Both programs are coming off disappointing seasons in which missed opportunities cost them an opportunity to compete in the conference title game.
The Cornhuskers took care of business against inferior competition, going 9-0 when playing unranked opponents. However, they struggled with the most difficult part of their schedule, losing all three games against teams in the top 25.
While Nebraska lost a 35-point blowout at Wisconsin, they nearly beat their other two ranked opponents. Trailing then-No.10 Michigan State 27-3 in the fourth quarter on Oct. 4, the Cornhuskers almost mounted one of the best comebacks of 2014. Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s pass was intercepted by Trae Waynes at the 18-yard line with 30 seconds remaining, as the Spartans prevailed, 27-22. Hosting then-No. 25 Minnesota on Nov. 22, Nebraska led by 10 points midway through the third quarter, but surrendered two unanswered rushing touchdowns to the Golden Gophers, who held on to win, 28-24.
Nebraska would go on to finish third in the Big Ten, behind Wisconsin and Minnesota. They have won at least nine games in every season since 2008.
The Trojans’ managed to get two wins over ranked opponents, winning at then-No.13 Stanford and beating No.10 Arizona. They, however, suffered one more loss than the Cornhuskers, doing so in an even more gut-wrenching fashion.
USC appeared to be on their way to a home victory against Arizona State on Oct. 4, but a 46-yard Hail Mary from Sun Devil quarterback Mike Bercovici was caught by Jaelen Strong to shock the Trojans, 38-34. Three weeks later in Salt Lake City, a touchdown pass by Travis Wilson to Kaelin Clay with eight seconds remaining resulted in a loss to Utah.
The Trojans would finish within a game of the Pac-12 South division title, but in fourth place behind Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State. They’ve lost at least four games in the last three seasons. From 2002-2008, the Trojans never lost more than twice in a single season.
Both storied programs underachieved in 2014, considering their preseason projections. USC, which has won 11 national championships, entered the season as the No. 15 team in the nation, while Nebraska, the winner of five national championships, began at No. 22. Though USC and Nebraska expected more from the season than a Holiday Bowl appearance, both teams are expected to play hard in San Diego.
“They’re 9-3, and they’re probably looking at two of those games thinking, geez, we could have won those two and we’re sitting at 11-1 playing for a Big Ten championship,” Sarkisian said Friday, according to the Orange County Register. “I know they’re going to be hungry, ready to play.”
The coaching matchup is particularly interesting. Sarkisian will appear in his first bowl game as head coach of USC. He will be seeking his first bowl win since the 2010 Holiday Bowl, when he coached Washington to a victory over Nebraska, 19-7. The Cornhuskers enter the Holiday Bowl with interim head coach Barney Cotton taking over for Bo Pelini, who was fired on Nov. 30. Mike Riley, who spent 14 seasons with Oregon State and had been an offensive coordinator at USC from 1993 through 1996, will take over next season. Riley has already stated that he will retain at least one Pelini assistant.
But the matchup that should garner the most attention might be between perhaps the two best defensive linemen in the nation. Junior Leonard Williams of USC and redshirt junior Randy Gregory of Nebraska are expected to be top picks in the upcoming NFL draft, and are coming off strong seasons. Despite missing four games, Gregory blocked two field-goal attempts, and had 50 total tackles and seven sacks. Williams had just six sacks this season, but played a valuable role on the Trojan defense.
On offense, Nebraska boasts quality talent in seniors Kenny Bell, who caught 40 passes for 717 yards, and Ameer Abdullah, who rushed for 1,523 yards and 18 touchdowns. USC counters with receiver Nelson Agholor, who finished the season with 1,223 receiving yards on 97 catches, and Buck Allen, who rushed for 1,337 yards and nine touchdowns.
Betting Odds: USC by 6.5 points
Over/Under: 61.5 points
Prediction: USC over Nebraska, 30-20
An IB Times staff reporter contributed to this report.