Bowl win a fitting conclusion for USC

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LAS VEGAS -- It was an appropriate setting for USC's unforgettable, unpredictable and altogether crazy season to end.

After all, what city encapsulates extreme highs and lows better than Las Vegas?

USC's season played out like a maddening night at the tables where you wade through one dealer after another, hoping to settle on one who will finally make you a winner.

In USC's case, the Trojans are hoping the magic number is four.

Since 1889, USC has never had more than one head coach in a single season. Over the past four turbulent months to finish out this season, the Trojans have had four head coaches.

On Saturday, USC's third head coach, Clay Helton, led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, while USC's fourth head coach, Steve Sarkisian, watched in the press box, anxiously waiting to take the reins of the team after the game was over. Somewhere in Louisiana, USC's second head coach, Ed Orgeron, watched the game that USC players dedicated to him, and somewhere in California, USC's first head coach this season, Lane Kiffin, watched as the players he recruited beat his alma mater.

Saturday's game not only ended the most unusual and tumultuous season in USC history, but also ended an odd three-week stretch in which Helton attempted to be the team's third head coach this season while Sarkisian was around the team and players, preparing to take over as soon as the game was finished.

Sarkisian was not only around the team during practices at USC the past two weeks, but was also a constant presence this weekend at the team hotel and bowl practices. He even met with the players' parents in a hotel ballroom to discuss his philosophy and plans for next season.

It would have been easy to assume USC players would view the trip to Las Vegas as a vacation at the end of the season rather than the final game of the year. The images of the Trojans getting embarrassed last year at the Sun Bowl and in their previous trip to the Las Vegas Bowl served as a perfect template for this game. It's always a smart bet to go against USC when playing in a lesser bowl against a lesser opponent.

Not this year's Trojans.

They may not have finished the season with the trophy they wanted or even the coach they wanted, but they never gave up.

No USC team in recent memory has embodied the school's motto to "Fight on!" more than this group. It fought on through NCAA sanctions, a quarterback controversy to start the season and three head coaches during the season to finish with 10 wins for only the second time since 2008 and the school's first bowl win since 2009.

There was little doubt that USC was ready to play from the opening kick, after which the Trojans drove 65 yards on 12 plays, culminating with a 10-yard pass from Cody Kessler to Marqise Lee. It was only the beginning of a big day for both players, as Kessler completed 22 of 30 passes for 344 yards and four touchdowns and Lee had seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

As Lee gave his gloves and wristbands to fans on the field, he still had a hard time putting into words what he and his teammates went through at the end of this season.

"Four coaches in four months is crazy," Lee said. "You'd never expect a team that's been through as much as we have to get these many wins. No team has ever won 10 games after three coaching changes."

Lee and USC safety Dion Bailey are expected to go pro, but both said they wanted to enjoy Saturday's victory and would wait to make their announcements sometime next week. As Bailey put on a championship hat after the game, he smiled as he looked up at the final score.

"We wanted to make our mark," Bailey said. "We made history this season. There's never been a team that's been through as much as we've been through and came out of it with 10 wins. This team will never be forgotten. We didn't go to the BCS and we didn't win the Pac-12 but we persevered and fought on."

As the final minutes ticked off the clock, Sarkisian left his suite in the press box at Sam Boyd Stadium, where he was watching the game with USC athletic director Pat Haden, and made his way through the crowd, showing off his credential to security guards along the way.

"It was a very unique experience to be up there in a suite and watching the game," Sarkisian said. "I was kind of pacing. I didn't really know what to do with myself."

Sarkisian watched the final seconds of the game outside of the locker room by the team buses, deciding not to go on the field and allowing Helton and the current players and coaches to enjoy their moment before he officially took over.

"I want them to enjoy it and embrace it," Sarkisian said as players boarded the buses behind him. "I couldn't be more proud of them, that they were able to come out and perform the way they did. They deserve it. I just tried to stay out of the way, the best I could. Now I get to get my hands on them and get going -- and there's a lot to work with, that's for sure."

Sarkisian's tenure as USC's fourth head coach in four months officially began Saturday night in Las Vegas, but before the Trojans start the next chapter of their program with their new coach, the players and coaches who survived this whirlwind season hope this year's team is never forgotten.

"There's so many words you can say for this team but you find yourself speechless," Kessler said. "You sit back and you're in awe of what these guys have gone through. I'm just so proud of these guys. This is a team that will hopefully be remembered forever in USC history."

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