SAN DIEGO - Bowl season analysis is a speculative field at best. Predicting matchups in college football between two power programs is already tricky enough, but factoring in all that goes on following a season makes that proposition even more difficult. When you have things like wholesale coaching changes and program overhauls, mindsets can become strengthened or more fragile and that muddies the waters to varying degrees.
Wednesday's Holiday Bowl matchup of Wisconsin and USC would seem to be a relatively straight-forward match-up between two teams ready to run the football and get after it on defense, but the 2011 national championship between Auburn and Oregon was supposed to break the record for points in a title game. Auburn won the game, 22-19, on a last-second field goal and no prolific scoring records were broken.
USC enters the game with a limited and inexperienced coaching staff after new head coach Clay Helton fired half of his staff following a blowout loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship. Wide receivers coach Tee Martin has officially been promoted to offensive coordinator and Peter Sirmon will run the defense. Knowing that the patchwork coaching staff will likely keep things simple, could Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst create an unexpected game plan to catch USC's staff off-guard?
“We want to win every football game,” said Helton. “We had great momentum in the second half of the season and it lead to a Pac-12 South championship. Obviously if you are fortunate to get a Holiday Bowl win it carries momentum into a recruiting class and spring football, but it’s the next game and the way we look at it.”
Helton was given the head coaching position and a guaranteed five-year deal following a second controversial coaching "search" by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden. The first thing Helton did following the completion of that deal was get blown out in the Pac 12 championship. Following up that abysmal performance with another one in a bowl game is sure to raise a host of questions.
In other words, there is more than enough incentive for USC to take this game seriously enough that any suggestion of apathy following a Trojan loss ought to be met with the harshest of criticisms. If the Trojans couldn't "get up" for this game, then they flat made the wrong hire at head coach.
While Wisconsin has enjoyed the bowl experience, Chryst was orchestrated heavy hitting practices both in Madison and on site to build some intensity. If the game does happen to become a battle in the trenches, Wisconsin's steady approach to the game would be worth highlighting as a reason for success.
“This is a big offensive line that is very well coached,” said Helton of Wisconsin. “They don’t do a lot, you know what’s coming, but it’s size, it’s mass and they do a really nice job of really focusing on the run game and play action off of it.”
Wisconsin has a strong history of giving is bowl opponents all they can handle, and any bowl opponent will not have done their due diligence if they expect anything other than Wisconsin's best effort. UW hasn't lost a bowl game by more than 10 points since 2008 and only such large defeats have only happened twice since 2000. There is a level of intensity that the program has come to expect from their players in bowl games and Wisconsin is more than capable of surpassing the standard.
If the Badgers’ lines can come out and set the tone early, they could force USC's coaching staff to simplify things even further to prevent the game from getting out of hand before they even had a chance to establish their own identity. Throughout the course of the season, USC have shown a tendency to crawl back into their shell when opposing teams gain control of the line of scrimmage. Trojan quarterback Cody Kessler tends to lock onto Juju Smith-Schuster and the offense becomes more predictable. On defense, USC have had major issues keeping opponents from working the middle of the field.
Establishing line play would give the Badger offense and quarterback Joe Stave his choice of target. It would also allow defensive coordinator Dave Aranda -- himself potentially auditioning for a job with the Trojans -- to give his linebackers license to dominate the USC backfield. If USC cannot control the middle of the field and they struggle to protect Kessler, the Trojans could be facing an uphill battle against a stout Badger team. It all seems so simple, but it's something that could be decided by the two schools' approaches to this game.
“It’s out last opportunity with this team to play together,” said Chryst. “I like to appreciate a lot of what we’ve done. Each year plays out differently, but it’s a chance to finish out your season. Our goal is to play our best game at the end of the year. We get to play a heck of a bowl game against a heck of an opponent. It’s one more opportunity that we have and how you finish the year says a lot about your team."
The simple truth is that wins and losses are often because of simple concepts. It usually comes down to things like preparation, tactics, discipline, and execution. Wisconsin understand this and embody this approach as evidenced by the closeness of their bowl games in the modern era. The Badgers have intelligent and creative enough minds on offense and defense to give the Trojans fits, but it all starts in the trenches.
They will have won because they prepared to win where it mattered most, not because another team didn't take them seriously.