In a Holiday Bowl featuring a number of high-level prospects, a true freshman led his team to the victory Saturday night.
All the pregame attention was focused on junior defensive ends Randy Gregory of Nebraska and Leonard Williams of USC, and each had his moments. But they were overshadowed by skill-position players, which shouldn't be a surprise in a game that featured more than 1,000 yards of offense and ended with the Trojans (9-4) winning 45-42.
USC's Adoree Jackson, a highly ranked recruit who actually lived up to (and maybe even surpassed) his hype this season, scored on a 98-yard kickoff return for the Trojans' first score, then scored again on offense as a wide receiver on a 71-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter that gave USC a 14-point lead. Jackson was the Pac-12's defensive freshman of the year and also played solid defensively at cornerback Saturday night.
Jackson definitely had offensive help from other Trojans prospects:
» USC junior quarterback Cody Kessler threw for 321 yards and three TDs. That gave him 39 TD passes this season, which ties the school's single-season record, set by Matt Barkley in 2011.
» Trojans junior tailback Javorius "Buck" Allen ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 1,489 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
» USC junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor had seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown. The performance put him over the 100-catch plateau for the season; he finished with 104 receptions for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns. Agholor also was inserted at defensive back on the final play of the game, a Nebraska "Hail Mary" attempt; he knocked the pass down.
Afterward, Kessler told reporters he was staying for his senior season. Agholor and Allen -- both Florida natives, as is Williams -- said they had not made a decision. NFL Media analyst Charles Davis believes Agholor should stay in school at USC, writing that he could vault up draft boards "with another year of seasoning." Allen has been compared to Tennessee Titans rookie Bishop Sankey, and NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah wrote in September, "I don't know if people around the country have really caught on to how good he is."
Nebraska had its share of offensive stars, too. Much-maligned sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for a career-high 369 yards, with three touchdowns. He also rushed for 41 yards and a score. Armstrong hadn't thrown for more than 273 yards this season.
And Huskers senior tailback Ameer Abdullah had a solid final college game. He rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown and added five receptions for 61 yards and 120 kick-return yards. He finishes his career with 7,187 all-purpose yards, becoming just the 11th player in FBS history to reach the 7,000-yard mark. Abdullah might be the top senior running back in the nation, but he probably would be behind a handful of underclassmen on most draft boards. NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock has compared Abdullah to Cincinnati Bengals running back Gio Bernard.
Gregory, who seemed to wear down as the game progressed, was used as both a standup pass rusher and a hand-down end; he finished with four tackles. Brooks has noted that Gregory is considered "a great pass rusher," but his ability to hold up against the run is an issue and that showed in the bowl. Williams -- who might be the most talented player in the nation, regardless of position -- had nine tackles and a sack. He was tied for the team lead in tackles with senior cornerback Josh Shaw, who had nine tackles and was named the game's defensive MVP. The bowl game climaxed a bizarre six months for Shaw, who was suspended before the season for fabricating a story about rescuing his nephew from drowning, and was then reinstated in November.
Nebraska (9-4) was playing with an interim coach, Barney Cotton; Bo Pelini was fired as Nebraska's coach in late November, and Mike Riley has been hired away from Oregon State as the new coach. Riley was at the game.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at email@example.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.