New No. 25 USC Trojans (8-5) head coach Clay Helton seeks his second bowl victory as the Pac-12 power faces the Wisconsin Badgers (9-3) and their top-ranked defense in Dec. 30’s Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
Helton, who was named full-time coach after providing some stability to the program following Steve Sarkisian’s dismissal and the subsequent lawsuit he filed against USC, went 5-1 as interim coach and helped the Trojans tie for first in the Pac-12 South before they fell to rival Stanford in the conference championship earlier this month. Helton coached in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl as an interim coach, leading USC over Fresno State, 45-20.
Despite losing to the Cardinal twice this season, the Trojans and fifth-year quarterback Cody Kessler put together some impressive victories this season and nearly claimed a few others. They fell to then-No. 14 Notre Dame by a single touchdown on the road, but followed up with a stellar 42-24 victory over then-No. 3 and national title hopeful Utah.
USC also toppled crosstown rival and previous No. 22 UCLA 40-21 behind Kessler’s two touchdown passes and rushing score with running back Justin Davis contributing 130 rushing yards to sew up a shot at the Pac-12 title.
Davis and Ronald Jones II combined for 1,815 rushing yards and 13 of the Trojans 24 scores on the ground this season, while clearing the way for Kessler to connect with Pac-12 leading receiver JuJu Smith 85 times for 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. All told the Trojans finished No. 31 in the country with 35.1 points per contest.
But Wisconsin's defense under first-year head coach Paul Chryst has been exceptional. The Badgers began the season with a crushing 35-17 loss to Alabama, and they did lose each of their two games to ranked opponents, but Chryst’s defensive unit nearly upset previously undefeated Iowa 10-6 and the next week edged out a tough Nebraska squad on the road.
In fact, the Badgers were a perfect 4-0 this season when visiting another program’s stadium, which may help out against a Qualcomm crowd that is sure to be composed of USC's cardinal and gold.
Led by leading tackler and inside linebacker T.J. Edwards, the Badgers were tops in the nation with a mere 13.1 points allowed per game, and were fourth overall against the run as opponents gained 97.9 yards per contest.
Wisconsin also has Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel, its top two pass rushers, to pester and harass Kessler throughout the game. Together they accumulated 17.5 of the Badgers 26.0 sacks this season, and USC’s offensive line was tied for third-worst in the Pac-12 with 35 sacks allowed through 13 games.
Still, the Trojans have some defensive firepower of their own to throw at Wisconsin’s limited attack. USC was fifth in the Pac-12 with 147.2 rushing yards allowed per game, which could mean trouble for Badgers running backs Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal. The pair totaled 1,254 yards and 13 scores and each averaged better than four yards a carry.
Yet USC can specifically disrupt Wisconsin senior quarterback Joel Stave, even without star freshman Cameron Smith. Outside linebackers Su’a Cravens and Porter Gustin combined to contribute 11.0 of the Trojans 37.0 sacks on the year, the second-best mark in the Pac-12. Cravens will play his final collegiate game, as the junior announced on Wednesday that he will be entering the NFL draft.
Stave dealt with pressure all season, falling prey to 25 sacks surrendered by his frontline, but he still completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 2,470 yards and 10 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions.
Betting Odds: USC -3
Over/Under: 50.5 points
Prediction: USC over Wisconsin, 24-13