SAN DIEGO -- Practice may not have been open on this day-before-the-game walkthrough but there was plenty of activity for USC football that was. Enough to cause someone to ask Clay Helton if he was surprised it was barely 24 hours until Wednesday's National Funding Holiday Bowl kickoff (7:30 p.m., ESPN) against Wisconsin.
Sure, it may have been a whirlwind since being named as Trojans head coach nearly a month ago now. And yes, he'll get some sleep after signing day in February.
"But I think the schedule has worked out perfectly for us," Clay said after his spot in the spotlight of the coaches press conference with Wisconsin's Paul Chryst, whose team has "severely impressed" USC, Helton said on a day where there was no trash-talking and the utmost respect from one program to the other.
The same respect as there was for the Holiday Bowl Red Coact volunteers. "If we coach as well as they perform, I'll be a happy football coach," Helton said.
Clay admitted what everyone knows: "We've gone through some adversity," he said in an understatement the Wisconsin players acknowledged as they talked of the challenge of having three coaches in four years. "But nothing like USC," said senior quarterback Joel Stave, who needs a victory Wednesday to become the all-time winningest quarterback in Wisconsin history with 31.
His 30 wins has Stave as the No. 4 winningest active quarterback. At No. 5 is USC's Cody Kessler with 27 -- and that's in the face of NCAA sanctions and coaching turnovers during two of those seasons.
While praising Helton and learning about what USC has gone through this season, Wisconsin's Chryst said he's "hoping we play our best game of the season. They're [USC's Trojans] are different than any team we've played. They're well-coached and dynamic in the run game and in the throwing game. That's what makes it pretty neat. It's a whole new practice. A whole unique opponent for us . . . we'll be tested differently than we have all year."
Not so much for USC. They've lined up against Stanford twice -- although without much luck -- although there's no Christian McCaffrey here to torment them.
After the combo conference, Clay went into great detail on his thinking on the bowl prep and the timing, allowing for two weeks off for his battered Trojans to get healed and ready for finals. How he's counting the conference championship game and practices as part of the 15 postseason workouts and how that's just exactly the way he wanted it. "I love how the schedule played out for us," Helton said.
"My ultimate goal is to be healthy and fresh going into the game," he said. The second goal is to get off to a fast start. No playing from behind against the Badgers. Here's how that happens.
"I think it's just playing in rhythm, clean, efficient football, assignment football with no penalties," Helton said. "Be assignment sound. We're doing things we've been doing all year. Let's hope that carries over."
And yet they're going to do some things they haven't done all year, as well. Clay isn't talking about those. But Wisconsin will see some things that are not on film. As you would expect in a bowl game.
"These are two programs with great tradition," Chryst said. "That's why you come to Wisconsin -- to play against a great team like USC."
Now if the Trojans can just live up to that billing.
They said it
USC AD Pat Haden at the Kickoff Luncheon: "Congratulations to our team and Coach Helton (big hand for Helton here from the USC team), it wasn't easy. And for you seniors and Su'a, we are so proud of how you represent USC. You are Trojans for life. We will miss you."
USC alum Dave Gilbert, CEO of San Diego-based National Funding, the last-minute title sponsor of the Holiday Bowl, in his one-minute speech: "I'm super-excited," Dave admitted, and one other thing. "I'm a little biased since I graduated from USC."
Cody Kessler on the season and this one final game: "There were some things that were out of our control but we're playing for the man we want to play for . . . there's one last chance to do it but it's going to be difficult against Wisconsin."
Su'a Cravens on his deal with offensive coordinator Tee Martin: "If I get a sack, a fumble or an interception, he's going to put me in on offense."
Paul Chryst on USC making it to the Holiday Bowl despite all that happened this season: "To do what you've done, from the outside, is impressive."
HOLIDAY BOWL QUICK HITS: The battle of the bands could not have been more impressive from its location in an expansive park setting outside the Bayfront Hilton with the San Diego Bay in the background, it was two of the nation's best with the power and traditional fun of the Badgers and their "Chicken Dance," the "Beer Barrel Polka" and "On Wisconsin" against the cool, sunglass-wearing Trojans with the Song Girls, "Conquest," "Tusk" and "Fight On." Absolutely great show for the maybe 1,000 fans in attendance. One other neat fun fact. USC Band Director Art Bartner, with his 46 years leading the Trojans, was the junior partner with Wisconsin's Michael Leckrone having been the Badger band's top man for 47 years . . . every year the Holiday Bowl has a Most Inspirational Award for each team for someone behind the scenes who works with little notice to contribute. Wisconin's winner was DE Jake Keefer, a senior DE who overcame numerous injuries. USC winner was Cheryl Taplin, who came here from Washington as Steve Sarkisian's executive assistant and carried over with Helton . . . For those interested in numerical trends, USC is 13-0 against the Big Ten in the 21st Century (Illinois 1-0, Iowa 1-0, Michigan 2-0, Minnesota 2-0, Nebraska 3-0, Ohio State 2-0 and Penn State 2-0) But as was pointed out a number of times Tuesday, despite a 6-0 record against Wisconsin, USC hasn't played the Badgers in 49 years.
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