The Trojans and the Badgers each faced their share of struggles during 2015. Wednesday, they come together and one will release some of the pressure in San Diego’s Holiday Bowl.
The USC Trojans (8-5, 6-3 Pac -12) – ranked No. 25 by the College Football Playoff committee – wrap up the 2015 campaign against the Big Ten Conference’s Wisconsin Badgers (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten; No. 23 in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls) in the National Funding Holiday Bowl on Wednesday, Dec. 30, at 7:30 p.m. PST in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It’s the seventh meeting between the schools – USC is 6-0 – but the first since 1966. It’s also the third bowl meeting in the series, with the Trojans defeating the Badgers in the 1953 and 1963 Rose Bowls. That 1963 game is one of the most famous in Rose Bowl history, with the No. 1 Trojans holding off a furious fourth-quarter rally by the No. 2 Badgers, 42-37, to win the national championship.
Saturday’s game marks the 38th edition of the Holiday Bowl – it’s USC’s second consecutive appearance, while Wisconsin is making its first post-season visit to San Diego. This is Wisconsin’s 14th consecutive season with a bowl appearance – the longest current streak in the Big Ten – but last year’s 34-31 win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl broke its four-game bowl losing streak. Overall, this is Wisconsin’s 27th bowl appearance (12-14). Meanwhile, this is USC’s 52nd bowl game – the Trojans are 34-17, with those 34 wins the second most in college football history (Alabama, 35). USC has won six of its past seven bowl games.
On Dec, 5, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey rolled up 461 total yards – while rushing, receiving, and passing for touchdowns – as then-No. 7 Stanford beat then-No. 20 USC, 41-22, in the Pac-12 Championship game in Santa Clara, Calif. Trailing 13-3 at the half, the Trojans seized the lead with two quick third-quarter touchdowns before a Kevin Hogan TD run and game-turning scoop-and-score 34-yard fumble return by Solomon Thomas after USC’s Cody Kessler was sacked put the Cardinal up to stay. Meanwhile, on Nov. 28, the Badgers seized Paul Bunyan’s Ax for the 12th consecutive year in a 31-21 victory over traditional rival Minnesota in Minneapolis. Junior running back Dare Ogunbowale rushed for a career-high 155 yards, while the Wisconsin defense forced five Golden Gopher turnovers.
Clay Helton will coach his second bowl game at USC in only his second game as the full-time head coach. Helton (6-3) was the interim coach for the final seven games of the 2015 regular season before being named permanent head coach prior to the Pac-12 title game. He also earned a win as interim USC coach in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State. Meanwhile, Wisconsin headman Paul Chryst (28-22 overall as a college head coach) is in his first year at the helm of the Badger program. He spent eight of his 23 seasons as an assistant coach in Madison, prior to serving as the head coach at Pittsburgh from 2012-14.Wisconsin Offense
Chryst, who oversaw six of Wisconsin’s 10 best total offense marks during his run as offensive coordinator from 2005-11, brought offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph with him when he returned from his stint as head coach at Pitt. While the coaching duo would love to return the Badgers to the power-run game that produced those big numbers (and a 70-22 overall record during that span), Wisconsin has been hampered by an inexperienced and injury-prone offensive front and backfield. The Badgers rank: No. 84 nationally (seventh in the Big Ten) in total offense (377.3 yards per game); 78th nationally (again, seventh in the conference) in scoring (27.1 points per game); No. 58 nationally (seventh, Big Ten) in passing (229.3 yards per game); and a deeply uncharacteristic 95th nationally (10th in the Big Ten) in rushing (148.1 yards per game). Senior quarterback Joel Stave will be starting his 41st game under center for the Badgers on Wednesday. While he has improved his completion percentage in 2015 (60.3 percent vs. just 53.4 percent a season ago), interceptions continue to be a bugaboo for him: during the 2014-2015 campaigns, he’s tossed 19 TDs against 21 INTs. With Wisconsin’s rushing struggles, he’s been forced to throw more often in 2015, nearly doubling his completion and yardage totals compared to last season, as the Badgers have averaged more than 32 pass attempts per game – the highest rate in school history.
Due to injury and other issues, running back Corey Clement – the presumed starter heading into 2015 – has appeared in just two contests since the Badgers’ season-opening loss to Alabama. Clement is still Wisconsin’s third leading rusher (155 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, four TDs) and may be ready to contribute on Wednesday. In his stead, Ogunbowale (team-leading 769 yards, 4.2 per carry, seven TDs) has been inconsistent at best. Between a 117-yard performance at Nebraska on Oct. 10 and his career-best effort at Minnesota, the junior averaged just 2.6 yards per carry on 71 totes. Redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal (495 yards, 4.3 per carry, six TDs) has shown flashes of brilliance while learning the system, but was also hampered by a midseason ankle injury. Senior fullback Derek Watt is relied upon as a lead blocker and occasional pass catcher (13 grabs, 9.8 yards per).
Senior receiver Alex Erickson is Stave’s top target. He’s caught 72 passes for 924 yards (12.8 per grab) and three scores. With a six-catch, 76-yard performance in the Holiday Bowl, he’d set a single-season school record for receptions (78) and become the fourth player in Wisconsin history with 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Ogunbowale is Wisconsin’s second-leading pass catcher, but averages just 8.2 yards on 34 grabs out of the backfield. Sizeable (6-foot-3) junior wideout Robert Wheelwright (28 catches, 13.2 per, team-leading four TDs) missed the past four games with a leg injury but appears set to return – a big boost for the Badgers. Senior tight end Austin Traylor (11 catches, 14.8 per, three TDs in seven games) missed five games with a broken arm at midseason after getting off to a hot start. Sophomore Troy Fumagalli has impressed in his stead, with 26 catches and one score. Other threats include sophomore Jazz Peavy (13.4 yards per on 20 grabs) and senior free safety Tanner McEvoy, who’s lined up at receiver, running back, and quarterback on offense. McEvoy has 10 catches (10.9 yards per) and has also carried the ball 13 times for 110 yards and two TDs (a 32-yarder vs. Troy and a 20-yarder vs. Rutgers).
After losing three starters from its 2014 offensive line, the Badgers were relying upon senior left tackle Tyler Marz and junior center Dan Voltz to anchor a new group. Marz has started all 12 but has not performed up to the staff’s hopes, and Voltz suffered a season-ending injury on Oct. 24. Other injuries across the board have forced Wisconsin into seven different starting fives in 12 contests – including a lineup of Marz and four redshirt freshman at Minnesota on Nov. 28. That same quintet – Marz, left guard Micah Kapoi, center Michael Deiter, right guard Beau Benzschawel and right tackle Jacob Maxwell – is listed atop the two-deep for the Holiday Bowl. While Deiter has started all 12 (at either center or left guard), the green right side of the Badger line might be of the most concern.Wisconsin Defense
The struggles of the Wisconsin offense have not hampered third-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s outstanding 3-4 defense. The Badgers lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 13.1 points per game, and also rank No. 3 in total defense (267.1 yards per game), No. 4 in rushing defense (97.9 yards per game), and No. 6 in pass defense (169.2 yards per game). This is nothing new – Aranda’s defense ranks No. 1 in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense nationally from 2013-2015. It’s why he is on many pundits’ radars for the open USC DC spot. Additionally, the Badgers rank second nationally in red-zone touchdowns allowed – opponents have scored just eight TDs in 22 red-zone trips in 2015. Those 22 red-zone chances allowed are the fewest in the nation. Wisconsin is also No. 10 in the country on third down, allowing opponents to convert on just 30.9 percent of their opportunities.
Up front, sophomore defensive end Chikwe Obasih leads a group that is mainly tasked with keeping lanes free for the Badgers’ talented linebackers to make plays. Obasih has 37 stops (five for loss, with one sack). At the other end, junior Arthur Goldberg (15 tackles) missed a pair of games late, but sophomore Alec James (16 tackles, one sack) has been a steady reserve. At nose tackle, there’s a young rotation: sophomore Connor Sheehy (29 tackles, 2.5 for loss, two sacks) and freshman Olive Sagapolu (six tackles).
It’s at linebacker where the Badger defense is most stout. Senior outside linebacker Joe Schoebel, an All-American, was named the Big Ten’s Linebacker of the Year – and once you look at the numbers, you know exactly why: 18.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks (both in the national top 15) among 76 total stops. He also has an interception and is second in the nation with five forced fumbles. Quite simply, he’s a playmaker – as is the Badgers’ other OLB, junior Vince Biegel. He’s third on the team with 64 tackles, including 14 for loss and eight sacks. The duo’s combined 17.5 sacks is tops in the nation for any pair of linebackers. Less heralded, but no less important, redshirt freshman inside linebacker T.J. Edwards has been a revelation, notching a team-leading 80 stops, including 5.5 for loss. The other inside spot has been filled admirably by the duo of freshman Chris Orr (45 tackles) and sophomore Jack Cichy (51 stops, five for loss, two sacks) after junior Leon Jacobs went down for the season with a dislocated toe in early October.
An experienced quartet leads the Wisconsin secondary. Senior strong safety Michael Caputo is the group’s leading tackler (58) and also has two interceptions. At free safety, all-around talent McEvoy has six interceptions (tied for sixth in the country) to go along with 39 tackles (one sack), six pass breakups and a fumble recovery. At the corner spots, senior Darius Hillary (40 stops, six pass breakups, two fumble recoveries) and junior Sojourn Shelton (28 tackles, six pass breakups) have started all 12. Sophomore Derrick Tindal (32 tackles) sees most of the time at nickel.Wisconsin Special Teams
Sophomore Rafael Gaglianone handles the PAT and field goal duties. While he’s made all 38 PATs, he’s just 15-of-24 on field goal attempts – nine-of-18 outside of 30 yards. Clearly, the Badgers have faith in his leg, as he’s attempted 14 field goals of 40 or longer. Junior Andrew Endicott and senior Jack Russell have split kickoff duties, and though they’ve struggled getting the ball deep, the Badgers are sixth nationally in kickoff coverage. Senior Drew Meyer (39.7 per boot) is the punter, and he’s placed 24 of 63 punts inside the 20, helping Wisconsin rank No. 19 nationally in punt coverage. Erickson handles punt returns, averaging 7.3 yards on 24 opportunities, while sophomore cornerback Natrell Jamerson is Wisconsin’s top kick returner, averaging 22.3 yards on 18 chances, including a 98-yard TD at Maryland.USC Offensive Gameplan
In the Pac-12 championship game, the USC offense was nearly non-existent in the first half, outstanding early in the third quarter, and committed a game-changing turnover late in that quarter. While rushing for 170 yards on 32 attempts (including four sacks allowed for -33 yards) is certainly a positive against Stanford, the Trojans’ inability to convert on third downs early in the game – along with an early gameplan that felt rushed and outside of the power football personality Helton’s preached for much of the past two months – helped Stanford gain a huge early edge in time of possession and a double-digit lead on the scoreboard.
With three-and-a-half weeks between the Stanford game and the Holiday Bowl, Helton and staff decided to give a banged up Trojan team a two-week break before diving into preparation on Dec. 19. While that bodes well for the health of key receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steven Mitchell, and Darreus Rogers, as well as some nicks on a battered offensive line, it remains to be seen what the break does for the team’s sharpness at game time.
USC faces a daunting task in the Wisconsin defense, but not one that’s unsolvable. Wisconsin’s schedule kindly avoided four of the Big Ten’s top six offenses (Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Indiana). And while Wisconsin was nearly impenetrable at Camp Randall Stadium (allowing 6.1 points per game at home), the Badgers were more generous in road/neutral contests (22.8 points per game). Simply put, while USC hasn’t played a defense with this kind of statistical efficiency, the Badgers haven’t seen an offense with this kind of speed and talent since the season opener. The Badgers don’t go out of their way to force mistakes – their 26 total sacks, nine fumble recoveries, and 11 interceptions are all pretty middle of the road numbers. Instead, they force offenses to remain efficient and grind out long drives. However, don’t expect the Trojans to shy away from running the football. In the Badgers’ three losses, the opponents averaged more than 42 rushing attempts. And while Alabama was extremely effective on the ground (6.4 yards per carry), Iowa and Northwestern averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt. USC must not give up on the rushing attack if it lacks early success. With a speed advantage outside and the need to keep Kessler protected against the rush of Schoebel and Biegel, sticking with the run will provide the best avenue to open up downfield passing as the game goes on.USC Defensive Gameplan
While the Trojan defense was unable to solve McCaffrey on Dec. 5, they were responsible for keeping the Trojans within reach at halftime by stiffening in the red zone throughout the first half. What could have been a 28-0 halftime edge for the Cardinal was, instead, just 13-3. However, Stanford’s huge time-of-possession advantage and McCaffrey’s record-setting performance eventually caught up to a USC defense that seemingly relied on its starting 11 more in this contest than any other in 2015.
With Wisconsin favoring a clock-eating pace similar to Stanford, but a less agile quarterback, expect the Trojan defense to mix looks from the recent UCLA and Stanford games on Wednesday night – but hopefully with more success against a Badger offense that doesn’t have a game-breaking star. Wisconsin’s offensive line struggles – not only are the Badgers not reaching their normal heights in the run game, but opponents have also notched 24 sacks – should have the Trojan defense’s front seven salivating.
Still, stopping the run is always job No. 1 against Wisconsin. If Clement is available, that could change the tenor of the Badger rushing attack. USC’s defensive line must do more than hold its own in the battle for the line of scrimmage. Keeping Wisconsin below its 3.8-yards-per-carry average must be the first goal. The second: get after Stave. He’s a pocket guy and is proven to turn it over when under pressure. Expect to see a USC secondary that looks much more like the group that faced UCLA – there’s no reason the Trojans shouldn’t believe they can play a physical man-to-man style against the Badgers’ receiving corps.The Pick
Much has been made of each team’s motivation coming into San Diego. For the Badgers, the possibility of a 10-win season remains. Plus, the fervent Wisconsin fan base is expected to be out in force for the school’s first postseason visit to San Diego. For USC, most questions revolve around how the Trojans will react to a second-consecutive visit to the Holiday Bowl – especially when a Rose Bowl bid was so close on Dec. 5.
I’d be surprised if Helton doesn’t have the Trojans emotionally ready to play. He’s been effective at reading the emotions of this USC team – especially following tough defeats – and the team’s seniors, many of whom are rather popular among their teammates, also are likely to have a say in the team’s motivation. Across the way, the Badgers – who may feel slighted by being installed as an underdog – haven’t had many problems in recent years showing up ready to play in their bowl games: their past six bowl appearances have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
So, if both teams are motivated and ready, which holds the edge? While the Badger defense has been dominant through much of the 2015 season, the Trojans present them with physical challenges they haven’t seen in, perhaps, three months. On the other side of the ball, the USC defense has been solid against offenses like Wisconsin in recent years. And it’s been better in one area than Wisconsin: causing havoc plays – sacks and turnovers – for opposing offenses. Quite simply, the Trojans have shown more of a proficiency in creating game-breaking plays on both sides of the ball. In what should be a grind-it-out battle, a couple of those big plays should provide the difference.
USC 24, Wisconsin 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)