Wisconsin’s defense has been stout all year, entering the postseason third nationally in allowing 267.1 yards a game, but defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will need to have his unit ready to face a dangerous USC offense in the Holiday Bowl. The Trojans (8-5, 6-3 Pac 12) might be the toughest offense Wisconsin’s defense will have faced this season, as USC ranks 35th nationally in total offense with an average of 449.6 yards a game.
The Trojans have shown to be balanced on offense with quarterback Cody Kessler ranking 21st nationally in total passing yards (3,315), wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster ranking third nationally in total receiving yards (1,389) and tailback Ronald Jones II rushing for 940 yards. If Wisconsin is going to win its bowl game, the Badgers will need to be sound defensively and prevent the bust that will lead to the big play.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from the last game, expectations this coming week and need. Here are the picks for who would play an important role in helping the Badgers win back-to-back bowl games for the first time 2006-07.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Joe Schobert OLB (1): USC has found success on the ground and through the air, but Schobert has been able to show off his versatility on defense - stopping the run (18.5 tackles for loss) and slowing the passing game (one interception and two pass break ups). The Big Ten’s Butkus-Fitzgerald linebacker of the year and a first-team All-American, Schobert has drawn more attention from teams but still averaged nine tackles and made plays all over the field the final two games of the season. If Wisconsin’s defense is going to slow the Trojans’ offense, Schobert will play a critical role by preventing Jones – averaging 6.5 yards per carry – from bouncing runs to the outside. In addition, Schobert needs to provide the pass rush on Kessler to prevent him from setting his feet and getting comfortable in the pocket. Schobert hasn’t registered a sack since Oct.17, but bringing constant pressure will help limit the Trojans offense and put Wisconsin’s defense in situations where they can get off the field quickly.
2, Joel Stave QB (2): Slow starts have plagued Wisconsin’s offense from being able to get into a rhythm. Against the Trojans, Stave can’t afford a slow start, especially since the Badgers have receiver Rob Wheelwright returning and tight end Austin Traylor back at 100 percent. USC is allowing 254.2 yards per game, which ranks 97th in the country, so connecting on a couple early throws could be critical for Wisconsin. Stave moving the chains early should open things up on offense and could allow him to take some shots down the field, as the Trojans are allowing 12.2 yards per catch. As has been the case all season, Stave needs to avoid the mental mistakes. Over the last two games Stave has thrown three interceptions and zero touchdowns, so the fifth-year senior needs to reverse that trend to execute inside the red zone and take some pressure off the ground game.
3, Darius Hillary CB (NR): Whenever Hillary is on Smith-Schuster, the fifth-year senior will need to physical with the receiver off the line and find a way to make him work for his receptions. Smith-Schuster is third in the Pac-12 with 6.5 catches per game and is USC’s main focal point. The next closest player to Smith-Schuster in yards is Adoree Jackson with 382 and the next closest to Smith-Schuster’s 85 receptions is Steven Mitchell Jr.’s 35. Smith-Schuster has been able to find a way to get off the line of scrimmage against corners to average 16.3 yards per reception and has a long of 75 yards. Hillary (40 tackles, six pass breakups) has been sound this year and made sure he hasn’t allowed too many big plays in the passing games. When teams have gone after him, he has been able to limit yards after catch.
4, Alex Erickson WR (6): If Wisconsin is going to move the ball down the field, the connection between Stave and Erickson will happen often. Seventy-six yards shy of eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards, Erickson’s 72 receptions this season are the fourth most in school history and six away from tying Jared Abbrederis (78 receptions) for the most in a single season. If the other receivers and tight ends for Wisconsin can make their presence felt in the passing game, it will give Erickson a bigger opportunity to make an impact against a defense allowing 20.7 completions a game. The connection between Stave and Erickson have been consistent all season, particularly picking up a fresh set of downs. The Trojans allow 11.3 first downs a game through the air. Wisconsin will need to be able to find ways to move the chains with the pass, and when it comes to third down, expect Stave to target Erickson. Against Minnesota, Stave threw Erickson’s direction nine times, resulting in five completions.
5, Tyler Marz LT (3): Marz was able to help open up some nice running lanes and keep Stave upright in the win over Minnesota last month but this will be a much bigger challenge. USC has 37 team sacks, an average of 2.85 that ranks 15th in the N.C.A.A., and the starters on the veteran defensive line have combined for nine sacks this season. Marz will likely go up against Delvon Simmons (four sacks for 33 yards, 8.5 tackles for loss) and can’t afford to consistently get beat off the line of scrimmage. If Wisconsin is going to establish the ground game, Marz will need to find a way to help open up holes against a defense allowing 147.2 yards a game on the ground.
6, Michael Caputo S (5): Jackson has shown to be an explosive athlete, being one of the team’s starting cornerbacks in addition to playing receiver. Overall Jackson has registered 105.9 yards a game in all-purpose yards, which ranks second on the team, and averages 15.9 yards per reception. It will be important that Caputo is in on pass plays to try and help break up completions (six pass breakups this year) and be a sound tackler at the line of scrimmage. Caputo will play a critical role in being the safety blanket for Wisconsin’s cornerbacks and will need to find ways of possibly making a play to make sure neither can beat Wisconsin deep.
7, Vince Biegel OLB (4): Biegel turned things up a notch over the last four games of the season by registering a sack and a tackle for loss in every single outing. Schobert getting extra attention has opened up opportunities for Biegel to make plays and help limit the opposing team’s offenses of getting into a rhythm. The combination of Biegel and Schobert could be too much for USC to overcome, as the Trojans allow an average of 6.8 tackles for loss a game (98th in the N.C.A.A.). If Aranda can successfully scheme Biegel, it could lead to Wisconsin’s defense facing third-and-long situations, which will allow Aranda to bring even more pressure on defense.
Others to Note
T.J. Edwards MLB: The team’s leading tackler with 80 stops, Edwrads has consistently done well of stuffing the run, as he’s been able to read his keys and help slow the team’s rushing attack down. Over the last five games, Edwards has registered 26 tackles.
Rafael Gaglianone K: After making 86.4 percent of his kicks his freshman season, Gaglianone has gone 15-for-24 (62.5 percent) this season. However, if Wisconsin can get Gaglianone between the 20 and 49-yard line, the sophomore has better numbers (15-for-21).
Dare Ogunbowale RB: Whether Corey Clement plays or not, Ogunbowale will still be relied on to carry the football to help establish Wisconsin’s rushing attack and boost the passing attack, as he ranks second on the team with 34 receptions. USC allowed Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey to finish with four receptions for 105 yards in the Pac-12 title game. Ogunbowale likely won’t finish with as many receiving yards but he can pick up some yards after the catch if he can get into space and make some people miss.
Austin Traylor TE: Traylor has played in the last two games since returning from injury and the time off should allow the senior to get 100 percent healthy. Taylor was able to develop nice chemistry with Stave before getting injured, registering a catch in the first four games and a touchdown in three of them.