Bowl game offers a familiar contrast

Here is the question nobody wants to ask about USC’s appearance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday:

Exactly how excited can the Trojans be about playing Fresno State?

This is meant as no disrespect to the Bulldogs, who have enjoyed a terrific year and are led by one of the two or three finest NFL quarterback prospects in the country. It is simply a matter of two teams coming from different college football neighborhoods.

Big city USC is the country club team used to playing in major bowl games, often with national title implications. Small town Fresno State is the collegiate equivalent of a bunch of guys in bowling shirts playing in minor bowl games mainly to have fun.

Their pedigrees are clearly different, and if their only other bowl meeting is any indication, the Trojans could be too busy looking down their snooty noses at the Bulldogs to feign any real interest in the game.

Trust me, because I was there, in the press box in Anaheim in 1992, when USC was rudely embarrassed by a far more excited and focused Fresno State team in the Freedom Bowl. The final score was 24-7, and afterwards, someone asked Fresno kicker Derek Mahoney if the yawning Trojans really wanted to play the game.

“I don’t think they did,” Mahoney answered, “but that’s their fault.”

The guy who took the brunt of the criticism was Larry Smith, the late coach who had an underrated run in downtown L.A., taking USC to three Rose Bowls. But he struggled mightily in his final two seasons and it all culminated on a cold, rainy, December night with the smug Trojans playing as soft as one of Fresno’s trademark raisins. They didn’t block. They didn’t tackle. It was all they could do to make it out on the field by kickoff.

The press conference after the game was one of the more uncomfortable in Trojans’ history.

Smith knew he was under heavy fire from Trojans fans and boosters even before this embarrassing upset. Now the already simmering pot had begun to boil.

“I don’t control my critics,” Smith said. “I’m not going to sit here and worry about them. They probably give you too much blame when you lose and too much praise when you win. My No. 1 critic is right here,” he added, pointing to himself.

If he had left it at that, he might have been OK. But he didn’t.

“Shocked? No, I’m not shocked,” he said. “You people are, because you don’t understand it. Disappointed? Yes, I’m very disappointed.”

And then Smith finished with the most damaging comment a USC coach could make.

“I don’t think there are any Davids and Goliaths in college football today. I keep saying it, but nobody believes it. The names and logos, they don’t mean anything.”

I distinctly remember hearing that last sentence and writing down in my spiral notebook: “Say goodbye, Larry.”

If you coach football at USC, you have to understand the mindset of the Trojans’ community. The last thing they want to hear is that they’re just another football program. With the talent and resources available at this school, anything less than a top 10 contender year-in and year-out is unacceptable. So it came as no surprise when Smith was fired a few days later.

Steve Sarkisian should take note.

So now here we are again, USC vs. Fresno State. The Bulldogs have nothing to lose, the Trojans have little to gain. A victory for Fresno would make this one of the more significant games in the program’s history. A victory for the Trojans would be little more than a forgettable footnote.

It doesn’t help, either, that USC comes into this game after a season of wild highs and lows, interspersed with considerable tumult. It isn’t every day you see a bowl team arriving with its third head coach in the past 12 months.

These kids wanted desperately to play for interim coach Ed Orgeron, who replaced the embattled Lane Kiffin. But an angry Coach O walked away when he was bypassed for Sarkisian, who doesn’t take over until after the bowl game.

That leaves well-meaning offensive coordinator Clay Helton to try and piece together a good effort by a bunch of players who must feel a little like emotional punching bags at this point.

On paper, it would seem the key to the Las Vegas Bowl for USC is to generate a powerful pass against Fresno’s prolific pro-style quarterback Derek Carr. The Trojans have more than enough talent up front on defense to do it, but will those players, knowing this is Fresno State in Vegas, not Ohio State in Pasadena, have enough incentive to give the kind of effort it will take?

History says it won’t be easy.

But then, the Trojans should be used to it by now. Nothing in this crazy 2013 USC season has been easy.