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BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
The paths of Derek Carr and Cody Kessler both started in Bakersfield in the early 1990s. They have converged and diverged many times since then, but for three hours on Saturday, they'll come back together as the nation watches.
The Las Vegas Bowl kicks off at 12:30 p.m. on ABC, and it features USC and Fresno State. It also features two of Bakersfield's most famous football sons under center -- Carr for Fresno State and Kessler for USC.
Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl game
Who: USC (9-4) vs. Fresno State (11-1)
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium
Time: 12:30 p.m.
Radio: KNZR (1560 AM), 11:30 a.m.; KHTY (970 AM), noon.
Notes: An early Christmas present, Fresno was one victory away from a BCS bowl, and quarterback Derek Carr from Bakersfield Christian leads the nation in total offense, passing yards and touchdowns (48). The Trojans saved their season under interim coach Ed Orgeron, but now the second interim coach, Clay Helton, works the bowl game.
"You've got two top 25 programs playing in a bowl game, and both quarterbacks are from the same hometown, from Bakersfield," Carr said. "I'd be interested to know how many cities have that going on. I think it's great for our city, for the community of Bakersfield. I'm very excited it worked out the way it did."
Carr, who is two years older than Kessler, moved to the Houston area when his brother, David, was taken first overall in the NFL Draft by the Texans. He moved back to Bakersfield before his senior year in high school. After deciding he'd attend Bakersfield Christian, Carr joined the Eagles for summer passing-league tournaments, where he met a young quarterback about to begin his sophomore season at Centennial.
"They've been buddies all along," said Derek's father, Rodger.
Carr was a revelation in one year at BCHS, completing 68 percent of his passes for 4,067 yards and 46 touchdown passes, a school record that stood until Brandon Jones broke it this season. Carr and the Eagles won the 2008 Central Section Division V championship with three playoff routs.
After an injury-plagued junior season, Kessler led Centennial to the Division I championship game in 2009, where the Golden Hawks lost to Fresno-Bullard. They've never made it farther in the D-I bracket.
Kessler's recruitment exploded; after he settled on USC, he had an extraordinary senior season, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,831 yards, 36 touchdowns and only two interceptions before Bakersfield (led by Fresno State backup QB Brian Burrell) upset Centennial in the D-I semifinals.
"There's guys (at USC) who give me a hard time all the time; you don't get a lot of respect down here if you're from the Valley," Kessler said. "My senior year at Centennial, we could have hung with any team down here."
By that time, Carr was well into his storied Fresno State career. He has thrown for 12,626 career yards, including 4,866 yards, 48 touchdowns and seven interceptions this year. He owns nearly every Fresno State record in the book.
"He's great," Kessler said. "He's very accurate, he's got a strong arm, he's a great leader, too. He's a smart player, and it shows in his stats. He's done so many good things."
Carr finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting, led Fresno State to an 11-1 season and Mountain West Conference title and is looking for one last accomplishment -- a bowl victory -- before his path takes him to the NFL Draft next spring.
"It goes by too fast," Carr said. "I wish I could be here 20 years, but if I want to feed my wife (Heather) and son (Dallas, an infant), I'd better get going."
Kessler is in his third year at USC, but in reality, his story as a Trojan is yet to be written. After a redshirt season, Kessler didn't do much more than hold for placekicks in 2012. Then he battled well into the season this fall before securing the starting quarterback job.
As he fought for the job -- Kessler appeared to outplay Max Wittek in the preseason, but the two split snaps until the third game -- Kessler's father, Don, got some support from none other than Rodger Carr.
"He never doubted," Don Kessler said. "He kept telling me Cody's gonna hang in there, Cody's gonna win the job. And he called it. He said, 'They will realize he should be the starter,' just because he believed in Cody. I always appreciated that."
Kessler has thrown for 2,623 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions, leading USC to a 9-4 season despite two coaching changes.
"There's been a lot of ups and downs, and it's been crazy and hectic," Kessler said. "... I'm still improving, getting better. It's cool. The biggest thing for me is that guys on defense and stuff trust me, and we all play for each other. I'm proud to be a part of it."
From afar, the families have mutually rooted for the other's son.
"I was talking to Cody at a Bakersfield High game a couple of weeks ago," said Rodger, whose middle son, Darren, is a BHS assistant. "The last thing I told him was, just like I tell Derek: 'Stay humble and always give God all the praise.' And he said, 'Yes, sir, Mr. Carr.' He's a good kid, and so is Derek. They've put their lives in order."
But before Carr and Kessler continue along their separate paths, they'll cross -- maybe for the last time, maybe not -- and root against each other -- for the first time -- in Las Vegas.
"We've been texting since we found out," Kessler said. "It's a good relationship we have; not just me and him, but his family and my family. They'll have fun tailgating. But at the end of the day, we both want to win the game, too."
And Bakersfield will be watching.
"It's amazing," said Eric Mahanke, who has trained both quarterbacks at the Terrio Therapy Edge facility. "How often is that Bakersfield gets to watch these guys play against each other? I think everyone I know in Bakersfield is heading that way. It's really exciting."