Southern California felt it was a national championship contender and certainly was resembling one when the squad was unbeaten through six games.
But the rest of the season was a disaster for the Trojans, who finish the campaign in a mid-level bowl when it opposes No. 15 Louisville in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
USC (7-5) limped to the finish with five losses in six games and had to rally from 14 points down in the fourth quarter in the one victory — 50-49 over Cal on Oct. 28.
In the eyes of Trojans coach Lincoln Riley, his team needs to forget what happened over the second half of the season.
“We got to make the most of it,” Riley said of the bowl experience. “You can’t let all that outside stuff take away from the opportunities at hand.”
Nearly 20 USC players have opted out of the Holiday Bowl, including 2022 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams (3,633 passing yards, 30 TDs in 2023).
Miller Moss makes his first career start at quarterback. That’s no easy task with Louisville (10-3) ranking 16th in total defense (307.4 yards per game) entering the bowl season. The Cardinals also feature an elite defensive end in Ashton Gillotte (11 sacks), who announced he will return in 2024.
Moss has thrown just 59 passes — completing 72.9 percent — in his three seasons with the Trojans. He has passed for 542 yards and three touchdowns.
“I worked my whole life for this,” Moss said. “I’m excited to step in this role and I’m very confident in our team. … I think I just try to treat it like any other game.
“Obviously excited about the opportunity, but not gonna make it more than what it is. We have a game to prepare for and we’re going to do everything we can to win.”
The Cardinals are looking to finish with a bang after back-to-back losses erased some shine off their stellar campaign. Still, they have won 10 games for the first time since 2013.
Louisville blew a 10-point lead while succumbing 38-31 to in-state rival Kentucky in late November and then the offense struggled in a 16-6 loss to then-No. 4 Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
“It’s unfortunate we didn’t finish the season exactly the way we wanted,” Cardinals coach Jeff Brohm said. “I thought our guys came ready to play, they practiced hard. It’s just the game did not go the way we wanted, and that starts with me. We just got to fix a few things up.”
Louisville also has to figure out how to plug the losses of star running back Jawhar Jordan (1,128 yards, 15 touchdowns) and top receiver Jamari Thrash (63 catches, 858 yards). Both players opted out of the bowl to focus on the NFL draft.
Isaac Guerendo (649 yards, eight TDs) and Maurice Turner (251 yards, one score) will split the ball-carrying duties.
Quarterback Jack Plummer has passed for 3,063 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The contest will mark just the third time that Louisville has ever played in the state of California. Both of the previous games ended in ties — 24-24 against Long Beach State in the 1970 Pasadena Bowl and 10-10 versus San Jose State in 1990.
Brohm said the program is happy to be playing out west and he has cautioned his players that the Trojans are much better than their record.
“I think our team understands that when you play a brand team like that, it’ll be an exciting game,” Brohm said. “They have a ton of talent, are well-coached, and I think our guys will be fired up to go out there and play.”
The Cardinals are 12-12-1 all-time in bowls. This is their 12th appearance in the past 14 seasons.
USC is playing in its 57th bowl game. The Trojans have a 34-20 record with two others vacated (one win, one loss) due to NCAA penalties. USC is 1-2 in past Holiday Bowl appearances.
This is the first-ever meeting between USC and Louisville.
–Field Level Media