Here's the worry. What if this is all there is? What if the Wisconsin game, like the Stanford game or the Oregon game, is where this program can expect to go under Clay Helton with Tee Martin calling the shots on offense?
What if this is how they're going to start out game after game after game after game after game after game after game after game after game as they have the last nine games. What if starting out behind, starting off slow and sloppy, is who they are now?
Do we know that this is not who they are? Or who they will be? We do not.
We just know that's who they are now. Who they are for the last nine games. Who they were when they had 25 days to get ready for the Holiday Bowl.
We know they talk about being a run-first, physical, win-it-in-the-trenches team but against a star-free but extremely well-coached, tough-minded and disciplined Wisconsin team that had managed to beat no one of consequence and lost to the only three ranked teams, the only three teams with winning records, that the Badgers played, the Trojans got smoked.
The time of possession differential was embarrassing for a team with USC's ambition: 37:18 for the Badgers to 22:42 for the Trojans. The play differential -- 75 to 61 -- for Wisconsin meant that USC's most dynamic runner, freshman Ronald Jones II, got just eight carries even though he averaged 5.9 yards a try.
Imagine if he could have gotten the 19 carries that Wisconsin's Corey Clement, whose health status was uncertain coming in to the game, managed to get. That's what it takes.
But too many USC mistakes. Too many missed blocks at the point of attack. Too many second-and-longs made that a pipe dream for a team that talks a good ground game but can't play one against teams like Stanford and Wisconsin.
And next up: Alabama.
So maybe this is the moment. Maybe this makes it more likely that a tough-minded veteran like Pat Hill on offense or Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda gets the call from Clay now that he knows how badly their skill sets are needed. Maybe they could have told Clay this USC team wasn't ready to play.
Maybe they could have convinced Clay that practice makes perfect, to coin a phrase. Maybe they could have mentioned to him that fresh legs don't much matter if you can't get the ball to your speed guys. Or open up holes for them. Or if they fly by and miss tackles in the open field. Or play slower receivers from well behind them.
Maybe coaches like Hill and Aranda could be mentors for Clay in ways the two head coaches for whom he's been a recent protege -- Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian -- could not be.
Freshman tight end Tyler Petite was getting X-rayed after the game. No reports on his injury. Taylor McNamara bounced back from his lower leg injury and finished the game as did Adoree' Jackson, who appeared to injure a wrist but also finished out strong. After the game, Chris Hawkins indicated that he will have arthroscopic surgery on his ankle to clean out some bone chips that have been causing him pain all season. Chris says he'll be out two months before he can start running but should be back for spring ball.
BY THE NUMBERS
48,329Wednesday's attendance was the second-lowest in the 37-year history of the Holiday Bowl. Only the 1992 Illinois-Hawai'i game with 44,527 drew fewer. Last year's USC-Nebraska game drew 55,789.
6-1USC's all-time record against Wisconsin as the Trojans dropped their first game to the Badgers in the first time these teams have played since 1966.
10:30 to 4:30USC was in trouble from the get-go in the time of possession battle against a well-coached, tough-minded offense as the Badgers got the ball and wouldn't give it back. The first quarter alone had Wisconsin with a 6:00 edge in possession time to put a stumbling, slow-starting USC in the hole.
21 to 13.1As unhappy as USC fans might have been with the offensive production, the Trojans did score 21 points against a Wisconsin defense allowing a nation's low 13.1 points a game. So that's something, right?
3-2Wisconsin's Jack Cichy had three sacks in one series against USC compared to his career high of two in an entire game. What makes it even more impressive: USC had no sacks in this game.
67.5Cody Kessler's 18-of-32 passing against Wisconsin had him finishing up as USC's career leader in completion percentage, beating No. 2 Matt Leinart's 64.8 percent as he totaled 298 completions, fifth-best in a season behind his best-ever mark of 315 in 2014. Cody's 3,536 passing yards this year is No. 6 on the USC season chart with his 3,826 yards in 2014 second best. His 851 career completions and 88 touchdown passes are both good for No. 3 all-time at USC and his 10,339 career passing yards are No. 4 all-time at USC.
987How close Ronald Jones II came to that 1,000-yard mark falling 13 yards short. Averaging nearly six yards a carry against Wisconsin, if RJII could have gotten a couple more carries over the eight he got, he'd have had a chance to make it. Ronald becomes just the second true freshman in USC history to lead the Trojans in rushing. LenDale White in 2003 was the other.
1Freshman DT Noah Jefferson made his first career start in the Holiday Bowl. He had two tackles.
65USC's 65 rushing yards -- how's that for a run-first team -- were the lowest total of the season. The last time USC was in the 60s in rushing came in the 2014 UCLA game.
11, 8Two seniors on the front line certainly showed up in San Diego. Delvon Simmons had a career-high 11 tackles -- his previous high was eight against Washington this season. And Antwaun Woods had eight, bettering his previous single game high of six on a number of occasions.
Also 8Freshman safety Marvell Tell also had a career-high eight tackles.
6-58Even with an SEC officiating crew, USC managed to rack up more penalty yardage than you'd like to see with six for 58. Wisconsin had five for 36 yards.
WISCONSIN LINEBACKER JACK CICHY on how he was able to get three sacks on the same series -- what was USC giving them: "On film we saw that their A gaps were open a lot on pass pro, so Aranda schemed up a lot of blitzes that attacked that deficiency, I guess, and honestly, I mean, once would be great, but three times is kinda' just luck of the draw."
CICHY AGAIN on which was his favorite of the three sacks: "I mean the third one probably felt the best and the worst. By that point I was out of breath and everyone swarmed me, so I couldn't breathe but that was obviously the best one. Kind of built up and then popped the top on that one, I guess.'
CODY KESSLER on finishing his career not the way he'd hoped: “Yeah, obviously, I think there is a different meaning to that as the way I wanted to finish. Obviously I wanted to win the game, but I was so proud of those guys, how hard they fought, the seniors and everybody. I left everything I had on that field. I was throwing blocks and trying to get in there and doing whatever I could and taking hits and popping up and staying positive. We came so close there at the end, but, yeah. I've had a great time at USC and pretty much most of it has to do with the guy sitting next to me [Su'a Cravens] and the other guy next to him [Delvon Simmons] and the rest of the seniors . . . we went through the darkest times so that there could be a bright future. And I really believe that, and I really believe, you know, that this team is going to, you know, make some noise next year and be a team to play against and be a team to compete with, and a lot of that's due to Coach Helton, and I know he's going to get these guys ready next year, and it's going to be fun to watch."
SU'A CRAVENS on his last game and the possibility of Clancy Pendergast's return as defensive coordinator: "I never feel nervous but I woke up this morning more anxiety than I normally feel . . . and "Pendergast made me the DB I am today. If he's coming back, I expect USC to be one of the best defensive teams in the country.”
DARREUS ROGERS on USC's last play of the game: "Cody told me to run an out but I forgot the down and distance . . . unfortunately we came up short. It was just a miscommunication.”
ANTWAUN WOODS on his last game and this final season: "We're 8-6, that's what we are . . . it's football. One team will be ready, one team will not be."
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