BadgerNation: How has the dynamic of USC changed since the beginning of the season?
Ryan Abraham: It is hard to believe that just a few months ago USC was in fall camp integrating the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country with a team ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP poll. Optimism was high for Steve Sarkisian's second season as head coach at Troy when the media picked them to win the Pac-12 conference.
That optimism was short lived, however, crashing down soon after the Trojans took a 21-10 lead over Stanford in week three. The Cardinal went on a run to beat USC 41-31 and two weeks later Washington upset the Trojans, 17-12, leading to the ultimate demise of Steve Sarkisian just 18 games into his tenure at USC.
The Trojans were able to rally to win the Pac-12 South, but finished a disappointing 8-5. Interim head coach Clay Helton was named the permanent head coach five days before Stanford beat the Trojans soundly in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Within 24 hours of that loss Helton fired four assistant coaches and Sarkisian filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against USC for $30 million.
Your typical average year covering the USC football beat.
BN: What impact, if any, will the firing of three defensive coaches have on the defense leading into the bowl game?
Abraham: This is a great question and right now we really don't know. USC did not start practicing until Saturday, December 19, a full two weeks off following the title game. Watching practice over the weekend we are seeing guys who use to be strength coaches or administrative assistants now running position drills.
Most of the "new" coaches are familiar with how things were run, but it is a lot to ask of these guys to take on a lot more responsibility. I can't imagine this will have a positive impact on the defensive preparation, but how much of a negative impact it will have is uncertain.
BN: What has been the biggest strength of USC’s defense, and what has been the biggest weakness of the group?
Abraham: The biggest strength of the USC defense has pretty much been a 10-yard radius around linebacker Su'a Cravens. He is the one true playmaker for the Trojans, leading the team in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles.
The biggest weakness is the lack of aggression by the defensive staff, something that could change in the bowl game. This defense is loaded with athletes, but they were often asked to play soft zones and rarely rushed the passer with more than four guys. As a result players were thinking too much and not getting after the football. Against UCLA they changed that completely, playing over 90 percent man coverage and blitzing much more. The result was a resounding win against the rival Bruins.
One week later USC went back to its old ways and got torched by Kevin Hogan and Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was fired the next day and Clay Helton made it clear he wanted to bring in a much more aggressive defensive coordinator. How aggressive USC plays in the Holiday Bowl remains to be seen.
BN: Describe Cody Kessler’s game. What are some of his biggest strengths and how critical has he been to the offense?
Abraham: Kessler's numbers have dropped off this season after an impressive 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions in 2014. I would say his biggest strengths have been his accuracy, completing 67.6 percent of his passes this season. Early in the season Kessler played a bigger role, but USC has emphasized the run much more since Helton took over. Kessler's favorite target, sometimes to a fault, is Juju Smith-Schuster and the two have had great chemistry all season.
BN: JuJu is the obviously playmaker in the passing game. What are the strengths of the other receivers and have they done their part in helping the passing game?
Abraham: One of the biggest shortcomings of the USC offense this season has been the lack of a consistent No. 2 wide receiver behind Smith-Schuster. Each week a different player would look like he could emerge as a great second option for Kessler, only to disappear completely the following week.Smith-Schuster has over 1,000 more yards than the Trojans second leading receiver, who just happens to be USC's starting cornerback Adoree Jackson.
Tight ends have almost been no existent in the passing game, but Oklahoma transfer Taylor McNamara does have four touchdowns among his 10 total receptions.
BN: USC has three players with over 450 rushing yards, including two over 850. How does the trio stretch defenses and differ from each other?
Abraham: Senior Tre Madden was the big back option, but the former linebacker has been ruled out for the Holiday Bowl due to a knee injury.
Junior Justin Davis has been the most productive back over the past several games. He has consistently been a solid option in the run game, he can catch it out of the backfield and he isn't a liability in pass protection.
True freshman Ronald Jones II is the homerun guy, leading the team in rushing yards despite being the third option most of the time. He reminds a lot of USC fans of Reggie Bush the way he can make plays in the open field. His hands have been suspect at times and he admittedly never had to pass block before this season, a skill he is still trying to acquire.
BN: Is there an excitement level among the fan base with this game, considering USC was in the Holiday Bowl last year?
Abraham: I didn't think there was going to be a lot of excitement for the Pac-12 Championship, but USC fans showed up and occupied about half of Levi's Stadium, despite Stanford being just down the freeway.My feeling is a bunch of USC fans will show up for this one despite being in the same bowl for back-to-back years. It is only a two-hour drive and the date between Christmas and New Year's is usually manageable.
As far as the excitement level goes, most of the fans have been talking about firing and hiring coaches instead of playing the Badgers. It was similar to the week before the Pac-12 Championship when Helton was named the permanent head coach. Most everyone was talking about that and not the game itself.
This is a program that has had countless off-the-field distractions over the past several years and oftentimes those distractions can overshadow the games.
BN: What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give USC trouble? Where do you think the Trojans have the edge over the Badgers?
Abraham: To me this game will be decided on the lines. USC is going to need great line play on both sides of the ball to complete with a tough Wisconsin squad.
As far as the edge goes, I think USC has a few individual athletes that are hard to match up with.
BN: What is your prediction?
Abraham: My gut feeling is that while this game is important to Clay Helton and what is left of this staff, the real situation is they have one eye on this game and one eye on what happens after. Who else will be fired and who else will USC bring in? This team is used to dealing with distractions, but this one I think will be too much to overcome. I'll take Wisconsin to win this one outright.