Southern Cal-Wisconsin Preview
For all that Southern California has endured, it can conclude a winning season in a positive way while optimistically looking toward the future.
However, that final task won't be easy against a No. 23 Wisconsin team that boasts the nation's top scoring defense.
The Trojans and Badgers meet for the first time in almost half a century Wednesday night in the Holiday Bowl.
In one of the more challenging seasons in the program's storied history, USC (8-5) opened as the eighth-ranked team in the nation, then suffered through a stretch of three losses in four games during which coach Steve Sarkisian was fired.
All that happened by the middle of October.
But USC regrouped to win four straight Oct. 24-Nov. 13 and pounded then-22nd-ranked rival UCLA 40-21 to earn a share of the Pac-12 South Division and spot in the conference title game. The Trojans fell 41-22 to fifth-ranked Stanford in that contest.
“I have a ton of respect for what they've done this year,” first-year Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
USC has not played in a major bowl since the 2008 season, and the shadow of Sarkisian's lawsuit against the school for wrongful termination still lingers over the program. But it's more than grateful to make a second consecutive trip to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl.
“We will bring a motivated Trojan team that is anxious to finish the 2015 season on a high note,” said coach Clay Helton, the former assistant who is 5-3 since taking over after Sarkisian was fired Oct. 12 because of his continued struggles with alcohol.
Helton, who had the interim tag removed Nov. 30, remained his own offensive coordinator after being promoted but recently said wide receivers coach Tee Martin will be in charge of the offense.
The Trojans averaged 46.8 points in the first four games but 29.7 in the last nine – same as they allowed in that span. However, they still have enough offensive weapons to break out.
Senior Cody Kessler ranks among the top four in USC history in career passing yards (10,118) and touchdowns (87). He's thrown 10 of his 28 TDs in the last five games and only one of his six interceptions in the past seven. Kessler completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 666 yards with seven TDs and two INTs while leading USC to bowl wins in each of the last two seasons.
“I'll look back some day and be proud of the person I became and the players I got to play with,” said Kessler, who will play despite a sprained thumb.
Second-team All-American JuJu Smith-Schuster ranks among the national leaders with 85 receptions and 10 TDs, and entered the bowl season third in the FBS with 1,389 receiving yards. The sophomore had a career-high 11 catches in the Pac-12 championship game but has not scored in three consecutive contests.
With 940 rushing yards, Ronald Jones II broke Heisman winner Charles White's school record for a freshman. Junior Justin Davis has rushed for 875 and averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 108.0 per game in the last five.
“I know enough about them to know it's going to be a heckuva challenge,” Chryst said.
Wisconsin (9-3), though, should feel confident with a defense that ranks first in the country yielding an average of 13.1 points and allowed three opponents to reach 20 after opening with a 35-17 loss to Alabama. The Badgers rank third nationally in total defense (267.1 yards per game), fourth against the run (97.9) and sixth (169.2) defending the pass.
“We know we'll have a challenging opponent in Wisconsin,” Helton said. “The Badgers have an unbelievable defense … so we will have to be on our game.”
Linebacker Joe Schobert went from walk-on to second-team All-American after leading Wisconsin with 18 1/2 tackles for loss and 9 1/2 sacks as a senior. Fourth on the team with 58 tackles, safety Michael Caputo was also a first-team all-Big Ten selection.
Though the Badgers scored at least 31 points in three of the last four games, they totaled 13 in their Big Ten losses to Iowa and Northwestern – the only league teams they faced with a winning record.
Senior Joel Stave has completed just 59.3 percent of his career passes and thrown 19 TDs with 21 INTs in the last two seasons, but he can set the school record for victories (31) by a starting quarterback.
For the first time since 2004, Wisconsin likely won't have a 1,000-yard rusher with Dare Ogunbowale leading the team with 769. However, Corey Clement, who gained 949 yards in 2014 and 155 in three games during this injury-marred season, could be available.
Clement last played Nov. 21 and suffered a hand injury while receiving two citations of disorderly conduct for instigating a campus fight in early November.
“If he's good to go, he'll play,” Chryst said.
Freshman Alex Erickson was second in the Big Ten with 72 receptions.
“I've appreciated what our team has done to get us this opportunity,” Chryst said. “And now you want to play your best football.
“It's about finishing out the year the right way. That's what you hope to do.”
USC has won all six meetings with Wisconsin, and this is the first since Sept. 24, 1966. The top-ranked Trojans beat the No. 2 Badgers 42-37 in the Rose Bowl to conclude the 1962 season.