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Still plenty of room for improvement for USC, Sarkisian

It's too bad college football, unlike major league baseball, doesn't allow a closer. The USC Trojans could sure use a Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen at this point.

What an entertaining and frustrating Holiday Bowl proved beyond all else, is that after 13 games under Steve Sarkisian they still don't know how to close.

They allowed a very average Nebraska team to come from 18 points down to almost make it feel like Arizona State all over again. Only when Nelson Agholor -- a wise insertion, by the way -- batted away the last Cornhusker pass could Trojans fans sigh with relief.

So what exactly did that wild 45-42 San Diego adventure actually mean in the whole context of Sarkisian's first season?

Not much. It only showed us again what we already knew. This is a 9-4 team of supremely gifted players and alarming little discipline. It is a team that can run up points faster than Adoree Jackson runs past opponents. Yet it is a group with all the killer instinct of an Adam Sandler.

It will be interesting to see how all that translates into 2015, but if you're asking what grade Sarkisian deserves after his first season as USC's head coach, I'd probably waver somewhere between a B-minus and a C-plus.

Let's get one thing straight, by the way: Nebraska is not the best team the Trojans played this season, as Sarkisian tried to tell us the other day. It is not even close. The Cornhuskers' defense contains more open space than the San Diego Zoo, and while tailback Ameer Abdullah is a great player, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. wouldn't even rank among the top half of the Pac-12's passers.

Yet take away those two spectacular plays by the electric Mr. Jackson -- the 98-yard kickoff return and 71-yard reception -- and USC probably loses the game.

How does that happen? Well, primarily because the penalty-infested Trojans weren't playing much defense, themselves. Sure, Leonard Williams was his usual menacing self, but in a basic set with few, if any, blitzes, there was little resistance to a Nebraska offense that was able to roll up 525 yards.

Defense should be Sark's priority going into 2015. He needs to get more involved with it. He needs to let the players know he cares about that side of the ball, too.

It is probably too much to ask for him to give up his cherished play-calling duties on offense, but there is still a real danger of this becoming a one-dimensional football program, and that is certainly something Sarkisian doesn't want.

As usual, it's a lot more fun to discuss the Trojans' offense. If Agholor bolts early for the NFL, as is generally expected, it will leave a definite void. The guy has been a tremendous go-to receiver.

Now that we know quarterback Cody Kessler won't be joining him in leaving early, it isn't a huge cause for concern, especially when it seems so obvious now that Jackson, the freshman All American cornerback, needs considerably more playing time on offense. Jackson and fellow freshman JuJu Smith should be involved in plenty of exciting plays in the next few years.

It might not be quite so easy to replace tailback Javorius Allen, whose 152 yards the other night pushed his total to 1,489 yards for a truly exceptional junior season. Justin Davis is a good, young back with a flair for the big play, but he has yet to prove he can consistently pound for the crucial yards the way Allen did. Maybe Tre Madden, who was once ahead of Allen on the depth chart before getting injured, will handle that role.

One thing that might help is to have the tight end take on a more prominent role in the offense, and there were hints of that finally happening in San Diego. Freshman Bryce Dixon caught 4 passes for 44 yards, including a 20-yarder for a touchdown.

The happiest part of USC's San Diego experience is that it had to enhance recruiting. Getting that kind of exposure on a nationally televised stage can only help when it comes to luring four and five-star athletes, especially those from out of state.

In the end, though, what really happened in the Holiday Bowl is that Sarkisian's Trojans opened up a big lead and then barely hung on to beat another less-than-impressive opponent.

What it felt like, more than anything else, was a USC version of Groundhog Day.