Date: Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Time/TV: 9:30 p.m. central, 7:30 p.m. pacific on ESPN
Location: San Diego, CA at Qualcomm Stadium (Home of the San Diego Chargers)
There are some intriguing pre-new years eve bowl matchups this season with one of the better ones coming in a Pac-12/Big-10 clash between the 25th-ranked USC Trojans and Wisconsin Badgers. Both are regarded as premier football powerhouses in their respective conferences, but both have shown inconsistencies at times this season. Lets look at the tale of the tape.
USC Trojans (8-5 overall, 6-3 conference)
The Trojans had high expectations coming into the season starting as the #8 ranked team in the country with Cody Kessler at quarterback and an offense with the ability to make big plays at any moment. Second year head coach Steve Sarkisian was ready to lead USC back to its winning ways and get them back to the top of the Pac-12. After two cupcake wins and climbing two spots to number 6 in the rankings, the Trojans lost a shootout to rival Stanford 41-31. They would lose two out of their next three games to start season 3-3 including a 17-12 loss to Sarkisian’s former team, Washington.
Three days after the loss to Washington, Sarkisian was suspended indefinitely and ultimately fired the next day due to personal off-the-field issues. This could have killed their season but the Trojans wouldn’t let that happen. With interim coach Clay Helton taking over, they rallied off four straight wins following the loss to Notre Dame, starting with an impressive drubbing of a (at the time) #3 Utah team 42-24 back on October 24th. They finished off with two tough opponents, losing at Oregon 48-28 and defeating cross-town rival UCLA 40-21. The win over the Bruins was still good enough to secure the regular season Pac-12 South Division crown and a date in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford where they came up short once again in a loss 41-22.
Strengths: Offense and speed – Simply put USC has had a strong offense throughout the season. They averaged 34.9 points and 449.6 yards of total offense per game with 176.2 yards on the ground while averaging 273.5 yards per game through the air. They have tremendous play making ability and can strike at any moment with so much speed to go around.
Weakness: Defense. The Trojan defense gave up an average of 25.9 points while surrendering 401.3 yards per game this season. While they can make plays on offense, they are reluctant to give up the big play on defense at any moment.
QB Cody Kessler – 280 completions (67.6%), 3,315 yards (255 per game), 28 TD, 6 INT
RB Ronald Jones – 145 attempts, 940 yards (6.5 yards per carry), 8 TD
RB Justin Davis –157 attempts, 875 yards (5.6 yards per carry), 5 TD
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster – 85 catches, 1389 yards, 10 TD
WR/CB/PR/KR Adoree’ Jackson – 24 catches, 382 yards, 5 total TD (2 Rec, 2 punt returns, and 1 INT return)
Outlook: It was a roller coaster ride to say the least for the Trojans with the way everything fell into place, but they managed to play for a conference title with an 8-5 record and may have found a pretty good replacement for Steve Sarkisian in Clay Helton going forward.
Wisconsin Badgers (9-3 overall, 6-2 conference)
The Badgers had a quiet nine-win season with their only losses coming in week 1 against Alabama in Dallas 35-17, the Big Ten opener at home to Iowa 10-6, and then in week 12 against 20th-ranked Northwestern 13-7.
They started with a new head coach this season in Paul Chryst who returned to Wisconsin after three seasons at the University of Pittsburgh. It was inevitable for a Chryst/UW reunion after he played for the Badgers from 1986-1988 as a quarterback followed by assistant coaching gigs in 2002 and then again from 2005-2011. He had very successful years as the offensive coordinator from 2006-2011 while being apart of the 2010 and 2011 Rose Bowl teams.
In game one against Alabama, the Crimson Tide seemed to outmatch the Badgers on both sides of the football. The second loss to Iowa in the Big Ten opener was a tough one to swallow with it being at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison and having a costly fumble on the goal line that ultimately made the difference in the game. If quarterback Joel Stave doesn’t trip over his own lineman’s foot and is able to securely hand the ball off, Wisconsin may be looking at a whole different season and possibly a date in the Rose Bowl on January 1st. The last loss to Northwestern was another tough one to swallow as the Wildcats snuck out with the win after a touchdown pass from Stave to wide receiver Jazz Peavy was called back after the replay review showed he didn’t complete the entire process of the catch.
Strengths: Defense. The Badgers had a pretty stout defense for most of the year and were one of the tops in all of college football only letting up an average of just 13.1 points and 267.1 yards per game (97.9 rushing and 169.2 passing). Led by senior captain safety Michael Caputo, the Badgers hope they can find a way to slow down the high-powered USC offense and limit the big plays.
Weakness: Making big and timely plays on offense. The Badgers averaged a respectable 27.1 points and 377.3 yards per game, but they struggled to make big plays when they needed them in big moments. Quarterback Joel Stave had an up and down season while the usual high-powered rushing attack was missing with Corey Clement sidelined with the sports hernia injury for most of the season and Melvin Gordon now in the NFL. They will need the big plays to keep up with USC offensively.
QB Joel Stave – 12 games, 207 completions (60.4%), 2,470 yards (205.8 per game), 10 TD, 11 INT
RB Dare Ogunbowale – 12 games, 181 attempts, 769 yards (4.2 yards per carry), 7 TD
RB Corey Clement – 3 games, 29 attempts, 155 yards (5.3 yards per carry, 4 TD
WR/PR Alex Erickson – 12 games, 72 catches, 924 yards (12.8 yards per catch), 3 TD
WR Robert Wheelright – 8 games, 28 catches, 369 yards (13.2 yards per catch), 4 TD
S Michael Caputo – 12 games, 58 total tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF
LB Joe Schobert – 12 games, 76 total tackles, 9.5 sacks, 1 INT, 5 FF
Outlook: The Badgers could have very well found themselves in the playoff discussion with just a one-loss season if a couple things go their way in the losses to Iowa and Northwestern. They have a chance to go out and prove something against USC. They went through most of the season without star RB Corey Clement but hope he can provide a spark to the offense against the Trojans.
Prediction: The line for this game sits at -3.5 in favor of the Trojans as this game comes down to a test of will and who simply wants it more. It will be fun to watch as both teams come in pretty well matched. We will find out if the Badgers stingy defense will be enough to stop the speed of USC and if Wisconsin can find the holes in the USC defense to make big plays of their own. USC should have home field advantage with the game being about two hours from Los Angeles, but Badger fans have shown the ability to travel well in the past. I’ll take the Badgers in a close game 28-24.