Were they a product of the people or of the schedule?
Wisconsin brought the nation’s number one scoring defense into the postseason but many wondered if the 13.1 points per game were a product of the talent or the lack of quality competition. After giving up 35 points in the season-opening loss to Alabama, UW gave up only 11.1 points per game the rest of the way.
However, the next 11 games saw the Badgers play nine teams with a losing record and a schedule that saw them miss four of the top six scoring offenses and three of the top four total offenses in the Big Ten.
So with a matchup against a USC offense averaging 34.9 points and 449.6 yards per game in the Holiday Bowl on the docket, people were going to find out exactly what the Wisconsin was made of.
The answer? Toughness, as Wisconsin ended the 2015 season on a high note with a come-from-behind 23-21 victory at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.
In a year where Wisconsin (10-3) didn’t beat a ranked team, or even one that finished with a winning record, and missed out on a chance to win the Big Ten West with self-inflicted mistakes, registering the program’s first victory over USC was a nice consolation prize.
“It was fun to see how this team finished the year,” said head coach Paul Chryst, who capped his first year at Wisconsin with his first 10-win season. “I think they did it in a fashion that was together and put it out there. Number of guys made plays. I thought all three phases did a lot to help us win the game, but most importantly I loved how this team played, and I think they did just that, they played the game and they played it together and it was actually a lot of fun.
A defense that also ranked in the top ten in rushing, passing and total had no problems slowing down USC (8-5) through four quarters, holding them to just 286 total yards and putting plenty of pressure in the face of fifth-year senior quarterback Cody Kessler, due in large part to USC’s running game gaining only 65 yards.
“They do a great job of mixing up, bringing different guys and really hurt us with some interior pressure, especially in our run game,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “I didn't think we came off our combinations extremely well when they were shooting the gaps.”
Nobody supplied more pressure than linebacker Jack Cichy, who was named the defensive most valuable player despite having to sit out the first half due to a targeting penalty given to him at Minnesota. Cichy had a team-high nine tackles and sacked Kessler on three straight plays in the third quarter.
“I wanted to let the game come to me,” said Cichy, who had to stay in the locker room in the first half and admitted to yelling at the TV. “I wanted to ease into it, kind of, but obviously with how my "D" line was playing and Coach Aranda's play calling, I didn't really ease into it. I was kind of thrown into it, but it worked out for the best and it was awesome.”
His biggest play came when Wisconsin needed it the most.
With Wisconsin clinging to a 23-21 lead, Cichy came unblocked between the center and the guard, wheeled around the tailback put into block and hit Kessler’s right arm attempting a pass with 1:47 remaining. The result was a deflected pass into the arms of cornerback Sojourn Shelton.
It was the game’s first turnover, Kessler’s first pick since Nov.13 and the first interception by a Wisconsin cornerback since November 2013.
“That's them playing very hard,” said Kessler. “They had relentless effort to the ball. They do a great job of getting to me, and they do a great job on the run game and it showed.”
After trading possessions following the go-ahead kick, USC had one last chance to try to move into field-goal position, starting at its own 10-yard line. After picking up two first downs to get to midfield, the Trojans could not complete another pass and turned the ball over on downs with three seconds left.
It allowed senior quarterback Joel Stave to ride off into the sunset with his program-record 31st win as a starter. He delivered with 217 passing yards on 18 of 27 passes. He threw a four-yard touchdown to Austin Traylor to put UW up 21-7 early in the third quarter and played turnover free.
Most importantly, he completed back-to-back 17-yard passes to set up Rafael Gaglianone’s game-winning 29-yard field goal, doing so minutes with gauze over his nose and a cotton ball stuck up his right nostril after getting inadvertently stepped on through his face mask.
“It was fun for this group of guys, this group of seniors to be able to finish this way with a tremendous team win,” said Stave, who was the game’s offensive mvp. “I thought offense did a great job, defense played great like always and special teams did a great job. All the things that we've been through with this group to finish at beating a really good team like USC, feels good.”
Tailback Corey Clement, who had missed eight games this season, finished with a career-high 19 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown. He was on pace for 100 yards until a left ankle injury ended his day in the third quarter.
“Everybody came together as one, and we refused to lose coming to California,” said Clement. “Great respect to them, but winning back-to-back bowl games means something special to this program.”
In the year since Chryst was hired, Wisconsin has dealt with depth deficiencies at multiple positions, injuries at offensive line and running back that stunted the offense’s growth and heartbreaking losses that prevented them from navigating through an easy schedule.
And with 2016 being a murder’s row from start to November, UW heads into the offseason winning consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2005-06 seasons.
“Certainly means a lot to win your last game,” said Chryst. “For me personally, this team meant a lot, because it's made up of a great group of individuals that are unselfish, care a ton about each other, and so for us to finish this way means everything.
“What we do with this going forward, that's for next year's team to work on and to make reality, but told the kids going into this, this game was going to be about finishing this season. You know what, I thought we did.”