LINCOLN — Southern California vaulted into the postseason by racing to a 35-0 first-half lead and clobbering Notre Dame 49-14 on Nov. 29.
In a similar vein, coach Steve Sarkisian sees the Holiday Bowl as a chance for the Trojans to vault into 2015.
“We are hungry and determined to finish our season off well,” Sarkisian said. “We hope to use the momentum we have coming off our win over Notre Dame. But we’ll face a real challenge against a very good Nebraska team.
“I know our players are excited about this opportunity. We’re looking forward to starting the process of game-planning and getting ready to play another game.”
No. 24 USC won three of its last four regular-season games to reach 8-4, with the loss coming against rival UCLA. And momentum is an interesting word considering the Trojans’ recent past.
» Sarkisian is finishing his first year after the school abandoned its Lane Kiffin experiment in the middle of last season. Most damaging to Kiffin’s tenure was the 7-6 finish in 2012 when USC was preseason No. 1.
» USC officially came off probation in June after serving a two-year postseason ban (2010 and ’11) and losing 30 scholarships over a three-year period.
» The 2015 recruiting class will be the first full one the Trojans have signed since 2011.
Although their preseason rankings next year could depend on whether junior quarterback Cody Kessler considers the NFL, USC might be considered a team poised to rejoin the upper echelon.
“Our future is ridiculously bright,” Sarkisian said after the Notre Dame game. “We’re going to be really good, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Others facing NFL draft decisions are defensive lineman Leonard Williams, tailback Javorius Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor. But USC had 11 true freshmen play significant roles this season, including eight who combined for 52 starts.
Nebraska (9-3) will see all of them Dec. 27 at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. They return to Qualcomm Stadium, where Sarkisian and unranked Washington stuffed the 17th-ranked Huskers 19-7 to end the 2010 season.
Kessler will be a handful after throwing for 3,505 yards and 36 touchdowns this season, completing 70.7 percent of his passes with just four interceptions. But he threw three of his interceptions and only four TDs against ranked opponents in the regular season.
Agholor is third in the Pac-12 with 97 receptions and has caught 11 touchdowns, and also returned two punts for scores. Allen gives the Trojans balance with his 1,337 rushing yards and nine TDs.
USC averages 35.1 points per game and ranks second in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions at 48.5 percent, trailing only Oregon.
Defensively, USC has allowed 28 or more points to five opponents, including in three of its losses (38-20 to UCLA, 38-34 to Arizona State, 37-31 to Boston College). But the Trojans have held teams to 132.5 rushing yards per game (3.9 per carry), intercepted 13 passes and led the Pac-12 by allowing just 35.2 percent of third downs to be converted.
USC returned to practice last Friday, and Sarkisian voiced optimism coming off the short break.
“I think people recognize we’re a pretty good football team,” he said. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t finish a couple games that we all would have liked to, but outside of that we’ve played really good football this year.”
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