The Holiday Bowl had showcase potential.
USC wanted to show what it could do in the trenches. That meant pounding the rock against one of the top statistical defenses in the country and shutting down an offense known for running the ball.
Run the ball. Stop the Badgers’ rushing attack. Be physical. Dominate the line of scrimmage.
Senior defensive linemen Delvon Simmons and Antwaun Woods went into beast mode to make sure the defense did their part. Both finished with career highs in tackles. Simmons notched 11 stops, including an impressive seven solo tackles, while Woods had eight. The defense faced 46 rushes and held Wisconsin to 3.8 yards per attempt.
But on the other side of the ball, the Trojans struggled. USC couldn’t sustain drives, managing just four that lasted six plays or more and only two that took more than three minutes. Wisconsin only had three drives fewer than six plays long and less than three minutes long.
The Badgers stymied USC’s rushing attack, holding the Trojans to season lows in rushing yards (65) and total yards (286). Justin Davis only had 27 yards on 12 carries. There were no holes for him to run through and he often was met in the backfield. A couple of times quarterback Cody Kessler had to try to block for Davis after he would make someone miss in the backfield and try to change directions.
"They do a great job of mixing up, bringing different guys and really hurt us with some interior pressure tonight, especially in our run game,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “I didn’t think we came off our combinations extremely well when they were shooting the gaps. And then obviously, they do a great job of getting to the quarterback. That’s one of the best defenses in the country. We knew their front coming in was one of the best, if not the best.”
In the passing attack, Kessler was under duress for most of the night with Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy having a monster second half that included three consecutive sacks on one series. He also got to Kessler, hitting his arm just enough to affect a throw and create a wobbly pass that was intercepted late in the fourth quarter.
"The guy intercepted it, but the last thing I remember was him hitting me,” Kessler said. “That’s just them playing very hard. They had relentless effort to the ball. They do a great job of getting to me and they do a great job in the run game. It showed tonight.”
So what went wrong up front for the USC offensive line?
"They are a good defense. They schemed well against us,” right guard Viane Talamaivao said. “We just had a lot of missed assignments on our part. I felt like a lot of this game was us shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Talamaivao said Wisconsin consistently brought pressure through the gaps with their linebackers, similar to what the Trojans had seen from Arizona. “It’s what we prepared for, but we just didn’t execute tonight.”
Along with execution troubles, there were multiple communication issues. Wisconsin’s players noted afterwards they had seen open gaps they could attack during film study leading up to the game.
USC struggled with making the correct calls to assure each gap was taken care of, leaving free rushers coming through the middle of the line and forcing Kessler to run for his life, throw early or tuck the ball and take a pummeling.
USC’s hodgepodge line saw three starters go down to season-ending injuries and had to rely on a fourth-string center at times late in the year. The mixing and matching with guys coming in and out of the lineup took its toll. The Trojans were inconsistent and the injuries are partly to blame.
"Definitely had an impact, but I’m not going to sit here and make excuses with what ifs and nots. It was definitely hard to transition, especially throughout the season,” Talamaivao said. “But at the end of the day, the guys we had are the guys that we had and they did a great job. We still had a trust and bond within each other. That’s what a team is. I think things happen for a reason and I think this season went this way for a reason just to show us how important unity is.”
While a couple of extra practices leading up to the bowl game probably would not have hurt, Talamaivao was looking toward the future. He is excited about getting to work in the offseason and trying to get things fixed.
“We’ve got to get our hands dirty and do the work. Plain and simple. We’ve got to outwork everybody. I think that’s what we’re going to strive to do this offseason definitely is put the work in. It’s going to pay off for us.”
That’s a good philosophy for the entire team, not just the offensive line. Otherwise, the season opener against Alabama will be a game to showcase that the Trojans should no longer be considered one of the country’s elite.