USC (8–5) vs. Wisconsin (9–3)
Dec. 30, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch
After an eventful season—to say the least—USC is seeking its first win with Clay Helton as permanent head coach. The interim replacement for Steve Sarkisian, Helton was given the job for good late last month before USC’s loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game. The Trojans went 5–3 during Helton’s interim stint, including a 40–21 win over rival UCLA to win the Pac-12 South.
Wisconsin enters the Holiday Bowl after defeating Minnesota in its regular-season finale to hold onto Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 12th straight season. A bowl win would provide a positive conclusion to an up-and-down first season for head coach Paul Chryst and would secure Wisconsin’s second straight double-digit-win season. The Badgers’ three losses this year—to Alabama in the opener, Iowa by four points in early October and Northwestern at home—felt increasingly sour for Badgers fans.
Keep an eye on: Wisconsin’s rushing defense
Against the run, the Badgers rank fourth in the country at just under 98 yards allowed per game. Overall, Wisconsin’s defense is first with just over 13.1 points allowed per game and third with slightly more than 267 yards surrendered per game.
USC quarterback Cody Kessler might have the most name recognition in the Holiday Bowl, but it was the Trojans’ rushing attack that had a significant impact on the team’s surge from late October into November. Wisconsin’s best bet might be playing to its strengths by shutting down the run and forcing Kessler to put USC’s offense on his shoulders.
Did you know…?
Wisconsin, which beat Auburn in last season’s Outback Bowl, has not won bowl games in consecutive seasons since the 2006 campaign—Bret Bielema’s first in Madison—when a win over Arkansas gave the Badgers their second straight Capital One Bowl victory. A triumph against USC would also give Chryst his second bowl win as a head coach; he picked up his first at Pittsburgh to cap the 2013 season.
USC is riding a two-year bowl win streak, including last season’s Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. The Trojans last had a three-bowl win streak after capping the 2009 season with an Emerald Bowl win.
If Kessler does go to the air often, how will Wisconsin’s secondary handle USC’s slew of talented receivers? Outside of possibly the Crimson Tide, the Badgers haven’t faced a group as talented as these Trojans, led by JuJu Smith-Schuster. The sophomore’s 1,389 receiving yards rank seventh in the country, and his 85 receptions and 10 touchdowns put him in the top 16 nationally in both of those categories as well. Throw in two-way sophomore Adoree’ Jackson (24 receptions, 382 yards and two touchdowns), and USC could have the most talented grouping at the position anywhere in the country. That’s also not counting Steven Mitchell Jr. (35 receptions, 308 yards and four touchdowns) and Darreus Rogers (26 receptions and 264 yards). The Trojans rank 27th at 8.3 yards per passing attempt; Wisconsin’s offense ranks 69th at 7.1 yards. Wisconsin’s defense ranks highly across the board, but the Badgers have only faced two top-50 passing teams—Nebraska (No. 32 at almost 267 yards per game) and Illinois (No. 46 at 243 yards).
Even more eye-opening: Wisconsin hasn’t defeated a winning team this season. A 9–3 record undoubtedly warrants respect, but Badgers fans must be fearing yet another negative outcome against a highly talented opponent.