The USC Trojans (8-5, 5-4) defeated 15th-ranked Louisville Cardinals (10-4, 7-1), 42-28, in the 44th version of the Holiday Bowl and second consecutive at Petco Park.
It was the first-ever meeting between the two football programs and USC’s final game as a member of the Pac-12 Conference.
As is the case with most non-CFP bowl games these days, the DirecTV Holiday was filled with missing stars for both teams who either opted out due to declaring for the NFL Draft or entered the transfer portal to find another team for next year.
The biggest opt-outs were on the offensive side. The Trojans were missing starting QB Caleb Williams, RB Marshawn Lloyd, and WR Brenden Rice. The Cardinals were missing starting RB Jawhar Jordan and WR Jamari Thrash.
“Incredibly proud of this football team,” said USC head coach Lincoln Riley postgame. “Honestly, all the years and wins and stuff, this was as fun a win as I can remember as a head coach, just with all the changes, all the back and forth, six weeks, 20 plus guys that didn’t play in this game for different reasons. … For us to not use that as an excuse and to use it as something that really motivated us, motivated our team, motivated our coaches, was really, really special, and to see — I thought the team leadership in this game was as strong as it was the entire year. I thought that was a big reason why the guys played the way we did.”
USC backup QB Miller Moss quickly made everyone forget about Williams, though, passing for 218 yards and throwing a Holiday Bowl record, tying four touchdowns in the first half alone to give the Trojans a 28-14 halftime lead. Moss did this in one half against a defense that only allowed 19.7 ppg, 205.4 passing ypg and 16 total passing touchdowns during the season.
“That was not like our defense all year, and while I give USC a lot of credit, there were a lot of little things I think we could have done better that could have helped us,” said Louisville head coach Jeff Brohm postgame.
Moss, the redshirt sophomore, appeared in multiple games in relief in his three years at USC but had yet to make his first collegiate start until tonight. His touchdown passes in the first half went to Tahj Washington (17, 29), Kyron Hudson (9), and Ja’Kobi Lane (31).
“He was awesome,” said Riley about Moss. “I’m not a bit surprised with how he played. He just did what he’s been doing in practice, really for a while, but especially
come the second half of this year, in every practice the guy was just getting better and better. I knew he would be very confident coming in, and it was great to see him respond. … a lot of guys around him played very well and made plays, but he certainly led the charge.”
Moss appeared to be in prime position to break the passing touchdown record on USC’s first drive of the second half, marching the team down inside the ten yard line. But his pass attempt into the end zone was intercepted by DB Quincy Riley and returned 61 yards, a Holiday Bowl record.
Louisville QB Jack Plummer completed 21 of 25 passes for 141 yards but dealt with a dislocated pinky finger that had to be popped back into place during the game.
“(It) didn’t affect me a ton,” Plummer said postgame, referring to the injury. “It just was kind of battling through a little bit of pain, but as far as throwing the ball, I don’t think it affected my accuracy or spirals or distance or anything, so it felt pretty good.”
RB Isaac Guerendo continued his hot streak from late in the season, rushing for 161 yards and three touchdowns. His second score following Riley’s interception cut the Trojans’ lead to seven. His third score also cut the lead back to seven early in the fourth quarter. It was Guerendo’s second 3-TD game of the season. He also led the team with five receptions and 42 receiving yards.
“Isaac did a great job,” Brohm said about his back’s performance. “I think when Jawhar got hurt midway through the season, we were able to play him more, and he really took off. He runs physically. He runs downhill. He’s got good hands. When he gets in the open field, he’s got good speed. Did a great job today for us.”
Backup QB Evan Conley ran for a 9-yard score late in the first half as well for the Cardinals.
Moss achieved the record towards the end of the third quarter on a beautiful touch pass to the back of the end zone to Lane, who snatched the ball away cleanly despite two defenders in the area. The 12-yd reception came after backup QB Jake Jensen barely picked up a first down on a 4th and 2 keeper and extended the USC lead back to 14 (35-21).
The five passing touchdowns is also the most by a USC QB making his first start for the Trojans.
Moss added a sixth TD in the fourth quarter on a 44-yard pass to WR Duce Robinson. For the game, he completed 23 of 33 passes for 372 yards, averaging 16.2 yards per completion and earning Offensive MVP.
When asked postgame whether Moss’s performance might deter the team from dipping into the transfer portal for a starting QB for next year, Riley remarked, “he may have scared off anybody that wanted to come here anyway.”
Moss spoke postgame about the six weeks of preparation for the bowl game and how that helped not just him but the entire team.
“These six weeks weren’t about any individual, they were about us and the people that wanted to be here and wanted to play this game and wanted to come together, and then obviously like I did some good things, there were some things I could do better definitely,” Moss added. “I’m sure I’ll watch the film and there will be a ton of stuffy need to clean up. Personally, it’s a good step in the right direction, but definitely a lot to improve on, a lot to accomplish.”
Washington led the Trojans with seven catches for 99 yards, and true freshman WR Makai Lemon added 75 yards on two big catches.
Louisville attempted once again to get back within one score, but Jadon Thompson fell down untouched two yards short of the first down marker after making a catch on 4th and 6 at the USC 12 with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
USC ran down the clock to 1:32 behind 44 rushing yards by Austin Jones. On Louisville’s first play after a USC punt, S Anthony Beavers Jr forced a fumble, and LB Mason Cobb recovered to finish off the victory.
“We had some chances there in the second half to convert and didn’t make it work,” lamented Brohm postgame. “But it just wasn’t one of our better days, and I think as a team, defensively, offensively, special teams, we got beat in all three segments, and that’s how you lose the game.”
S Jaylin Smith led the Trojans with 12 tackles, earning Defensive MVP honors. Riley noted postgame that Smith played a position he had never played before tonight. Cobb added eight tackles, and the defense combined to generate three sacks.
S Devin Neal led the Cardinals with seven tackles. Riley added three pass breakups to go with his interception.
“I just feel like we were in a great position as defenders, but their receivers made great plays,” responded Riley when asked about the secondary’s play.
The Cardinals struck first in the game, taking their opening drive 71 yards in ten plays, capped off by Guerendo’s first touchdown run from two yards out.
A dropped third-down pass and missed 38-yard field goal attempt by Denis Lynch kept the Trojans scoreless through their first two drives on the night.
But their defense and special teams helped ignite the offense to touchdowns in their next four drives to take a 28-14 lead into halftime.
The defense stepped up first, forcing only the 15th turnover of the season. S Max Williams came on an outside blitz from the blind side and forced a fumble by Plummer, which was recovered by DL Solomon Byrd at the Louisville 19.
“Basically, a week ago, we had to basically change the defensive game plan because of the players that were available and a few guys that decided not to be here,” said Riley. “And our guys didn’t flinch. Our coaches didn’t flinch, leaders didn’t flinch. It wasn’t ideal, we changed it, and the guys flew around, played hard, played very physical, and super, super proud of ’em, especially the turnovers, because the first turnover is what got us going, and then like, defensively we got us going with the first one, and we shut the door at the end with the last one.”
Three plays later, Moss found Washington on a short crosser. After making one defender miss, Washington raced to the end zone to tie the game at seven on a 17-yard reception.
After forcing a Cardinal punt from the USC 37, Moss led an 80-yd scoring drive that ended on Washington’s second scoring reception that made it 14-7.
The defense forced a 3-and-out, making way for the 8th best Special Teams per ESPN’s Special Teams Efficiency metric to show their strength. Kyron Hudson came through the line and blocked Brady Hodges’ punt attempt, which rolled out of bounds at the Louisville 18, leading to Hudson’s own touchdown catch for 21 unanswered points.
“That whole week, I was getting blocked on that play, so just like Justin said, when your moment comes, be ready for it,” Hudson said about the punt block call. “So next thing you know, I was wide open, just went in and put my hand up. Then, just being able to have the opportunity to go out there capitalize, that really changed
the momentum, which I was definitely excited about.”
The fourth touchdown pass by Moss was a 31-yard bomb to WR Ja’Kobi Lane with 19 seconds left in the 1st half.
The announced attendance at Petco Park was 35,317.
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.