SAN DIEGO - If football is a game of inches, bowl season turns it into a game of fractions. For Wisconsin and USC in tomorrow’s Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium, the tone for both offenses will be set on first and third down and play a heavy role in the outcome of the game.
For all the praise heaped upon the USC offense throughout the course of the season, one major problem for the Trojans was their ability to win first down, which subsequently led to them losing third down.
The pattern has been fairly routine for USC on first down. USC head coach Clay Helton has, at times, fallen in love with the pass on first down. While there is nothing wrong with this on a strategic level, USC quarterback Cody Kessler’s tendency to favor Juju Smith-Schuster as a target has worked against the Trojans on many instances.
Per Football Outsiders, Kessler targets Smith-Schuster 2.5 times more frequently than the team’s second-most targeted receiver, Steven Mitchell Jr. That doesn’t even account for the amount of offense USC funnel through Smith-Schuster, who has accounted for 42 percent of Kessler’s 3,315 passing yards, 259 more yards than all other regular Trojan receivers combined.
When it comes to standard success rate, the USC offense checks in at 34th in the nation in total offense (449.6 yards per game). That’s all well and good, but Wisconsin’s defense checks in at third in the nation (267.1 ypg). When it comes to comes to passing downs -- which increase in frequency when you lose on first down -- USC’s offense stands at 30th in the nation (273.5 ypg) and the Wisconsin defense only drops to sixth (169.2 ypg).
Kessler hasn’t been well-protected throughout the year. As a team, USC is 107th in the nation in sacks allowed. On passing downs, the Trojan offensive line basically goes incognito. USC check in at 118th in the nation for passing down sack rate, whereas Wisconsin’s defense checks in at No. 25 in the nation in the same category. In other words, USC struggled when it comes to protecting the quarterback on passing downs and Wisconsin is really good at sacking the quarterback on passing downs.
This all comes back to winning first down and forcing the Trojan offense into a traditional running offense on second down, leaving opposing defenses an ideal third down situation in most cases. When the Trojans fail to win first down, their success rate on third down is almost non-existent. If Wisconsin can force USC into such situations early and often, the Badgers can look to establish the line of scrimmage through sustained drives.
It also doesn’t hurt Wisconsin that their offense is No. 32 in the nation in passing down success rate, but the Trojan defense is 115th in stopping teams on passing downs. If Wisconsin can up their standard down success rate on offense, all of the variables are in place for them to pull off the victory. They’ll need to find a way to protect quarterback Joel Stave in those passing down situations, however, since the Trojans defense is 21st overall in passing down sack rate. The Wisconsin offense isn’t as bad as the USC offense when it comes to protecting Stave, but 74th in the nation when it comes to protecting your quarterback in critical passing situations is less than ideal and is reflected of UW having started many inexperienced players.
The key to stopping the Trojans on offense has always been to take away the run and get pressure on Kessler. The teams who have found success against USC have all been able to find away to force USC to play from behind the chains. Stout defensive teams have stifled the Trojans throughout 2015. With the exception of Oregon, every one of USC’s losses have come at the hands of defensive-oriented teams - Stanford (x2), Washington and Notre Dame. The Cardinal were the lowest rated total defense of that group, and Wisconsin are ranked 43 spots higher than them.
Wisconsin doesn’t need to do a ton on offense, the Huskies were able to beat the Trojans with the nation’s 55th-ranked scoring offense. The Badgers check in at No. 78, but their defense is ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring. By comparison, the Huskies were ranked 14th. The Badgers are only ranked 51st in the nation when it comes to turnover margin. USC are tied for 8th, so winning the turnover battle will be important. USC have lost every game they have not won the turnover battle. The Trojans are 3-2 when the margin is zero.
Wisconsin will need to be able to limit the Trojans in the run game, win standard downs and win the turnover battle to get the victory. Befuddling USC and turning them one-dimensional hasn’t proven to be a Herculean task; it just takes fundamentals and a disciplined defense, and the Badgers have those in spades.