Longtime Buckaround contributor Rex Sheild gives his Holiday Bowl thoughts and a prediction - will the Badgers win this thing?
The 2015 Wisconsin football season has been an odd one, to say the least. Yes, the Badgers won nine games, are in their 14th-consecutive bowl game, and are on the verge of a 10-win season - an accomplishment that should never be taken for granted. Mind you, the team spent the better portion of the season without their star running back, the offensive line played one helluva game of musical chairs, and the quarterback play was, well, a bit inconsistent. Wisconsin did not beat a team with a record over .500, which is shorthand for “its schedule was a complete joke” (the notable exception be No. 2 Alabama, a loss). The Badgers’ two toughest conference games – Iowa and Northwestern – which were also at home, were both losses. So just what was the team’s best win, strictly based on how it played? Rutgers? Illinois? Purdue? Minnesota? I’m hard-pressed to find a game where UW turned in a solid performance from start to finish.
However, if Corey Clement plays against Iowa (insert this statement for, practically, every game that Clement did not play) and the Big Ten officials do not botch the Jazz Peavy touchdown against Northwestern, then head coach Paul Chryst is 11-1 in his first regular season at the helm, with his only loss against mighty Alabama in the season opener. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Southern California, at #25 in the final College Football Playoff standings, seems finally past the NCAA sanctions that crippled the program over the last several years. Yet, the head coaching hires and decisions made by athletic director Pat Haden still, in my eyes, holds the program back in its quest to legitimately get back into the national title conversation. Will this bowl game against the Badgers tell one way or another whether newly named head coach Clay Helton can bring the Trojans back to the promised land? Maybe, but it surely won't yield a high amount of confidence if USC loses to UW and closes out a season that began with it ranked in the top 10 by losing three out of four games. Not to mention, similar to what happened with Auburn last year just prior to the Outback Bowl, USC will be without its regular season defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox (who was among several defensive assistants Helton canned when the regular season ended).
At any rate, the Trojans were a pretty good football team in 2015, so let’s take a look at how senior quarterback Cody Kessler and his teammates match up against the Badgers and who has the edge at some key positions.
USC QB: Cody Kessler
The senior gunslinger may not leave USC as one of the most polished NFL-ready quarterbacks in program history, but Kessler still deserves plenty of attention. During this past season, Kessler threw for 3,315 yards, as well as 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Over 13 games, his 273.5 passing yards per game was good for 31st in the country, which is in stark contrast to his 33.1 pass attempts that ranks 57th. He also completed 67.6 percent of his passes this season and, as it stands today, will finish 2nd and 17th on the Pac-12 and NCAA career pass completion percentage list, respectively. Impressive, eh? Of course, but there was that game against Washington – 16/29 for 156 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 9.4 QBR.
While Kessler sprained his thumb against Stanford in the conference championship game, head coach Helton made you feel like the dumbest person alive for thinking, even for a second, that Kessler wouldn’t play against UW. "You could probably cut his right wrist off and he would still play," Helton said, via the Los Angeles Times.
Wisconsin QB: Joel Stave
I’m not a Joel Stave believer anymore. Yes, he started out the year in a way that had many, including me, excited after seeing the Wisconsin native, for years, throw ball at wide receivers’ feet. Through the first three games, Stave completed 67% of his passes and threw for 666 yards, to go along with six touchdowns and two interceptions. This stood as a dramatic improvement to his first three games of the 2014 season: 50% pass completion, 342 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He then promptly crapped the bed against Iowa in UW's Big Ten opener - and when I say he crapped the bed, I mean that he recorded a 9.7 QBR, threw two interceptions, and fumbled two more times, including on Iowa’s two-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Altogether this season so far, Stave ended up with more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). To give him some credit, he stood out against Purdue with a 76.9% (30/39) completion rate, his highest of the season, and slightly edging out his performance against Troy (13/17, 76.5). Moreover, while I do not have the greatest confidence in Stave, Chryst certainly does - Stave threw the ball an average of 32.5 times per game (61st nationally). Stave also seems to respond to the coach's play calls as his 229.2 yards/game average is good for 55th in the country. That is, he is probably better than people give him credit for.
The engineering major wins football games and there’s no denying that, but he’s a game manager and nothing more, folks. In this match-up, he easily takes a back seat to Kessler.
Wisconsin RBs: Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, Taiwan Deal
What in the heck happened to the Wisconsin running game this season? My goodness. To put the brutal year into perspective, the Badgers’ 148.1 ypg rushing, which ranked 90th (!!) in the country, was the worst average since the 2003 season by a large margin; the next lowest was 164 ypg in 2004-05, which still ranked 46th nationally. Obviously it did not help that Clement was far from a consistent fixture, and that you could never figure out who was going to be playing along the offensive line, but count me as one who was surprised all year.
With Clement presumably back in the backfield against USC, Wisconsin does finally have some solid depth at the position. I’m not quite as big of a Dare fan as Rich is, but he is an excellent change-of-pace back and is quite good in pass protection. The Milwaukee native leads the team in rushing attempts (181), yards (769) and touchdowns (7), is second in receptions (34) and third in receiving yards (278), which is impressive considering he started last season at cornerback. Deal’s physical presence is intimidating by itself, and it certainly showed against the Gophers in the regular season finale. Again, assuming that Clement is the starting running back against the Trojans, I’d imagine seeing a heavy dose of the three-headed backfield, which will be put to the test against the Trojans’ run defense.
USC RBs: Ronald Jones II, Justin Davis
According to USCFootball.com reporter Keely Eure, senior Tre Madden will not suit up against the Badgers, and will undergo knee surgery. This may not be a massive loss for USC, but Madden was still tied for second on the team with five rushing touchdowns, and also added 17 receptions for 133 yards and one touchdown. Alternatively, junior Davis led the team in carries (157) and also added five touchdowns on the ground. Finally, freshman Jones led the team in rushing yards (940), rushing average (6.5 yards/carry) and touchdowns (8). As a collective unit, the USC tailbacks are not the most spectacular in the country, but there’s no denying their element of speed. As to who may replace Madden, your guess is as good as mine – Dominic Davis only had 14 total carries in 2015, Aca’Cedric Ware only had 12 total carries, and Adoree’ Jackson only had six total carries. However, I would expect Jackson, a hybrid athlete who also plays on defense and special teams, to be a bigger part of the offensive game plan for the Trojans.
Alex Erickson, Rob Wheelwright, Jazz Peavy, Tanner McEvoy
Troy Fumagalli, Austin Traylor
Erickson has turned into a pretty good, maybe great, wide receiver for the Wisconsin Badgers. The former walk-on registered 72 receptions for 924 yards with three touchdowns this season. To put Erickson's value to this offense into perspective, the next best WR in terms of yards is Wheelwright with 369. Speaking of Wheelwright, it’ll be nice to have him back, as he leads the team in receiving touchdowns with four. This game could also serve as a nice springboard for Mr. Peavy, as his role and needed contributions will only continue to escalate next season. I’ve been waiting for McEvoy to actually assert himself offensively, or to at least see the play callers to utilize the former quarterback more effectively. Will Wednesday, his last day on the field as a Badger, finally be the day? I sure hope so, because the senior has way too much athleticism to only register 10 receptions for 109 yards over 13 games.
It is disappointing that Traylor (three touchdowns) broke his arm earlier in the year because this unit could have been substantially better than what the numbers show. Still, Fumagalli filled in nicely as the starting tight end, which should be valuable experience going forward for the sophomore. Nonetheless, I’m still waiting for a tight end screen to be utilized, preferably in the middle of the field on third down. Oddly specific, I know.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson, Steven Mitchell Jr., Darreus Rogers
Tyler Petite, Taylor McNamara
It’s pretty much the JuJu Show for the USC receiving corps because the young man can ball, as the kids like to say. The sophomore wideout registered a whopping 85 receptions for 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. Mitchell is second on the team with 35 receptions, and Jackson is second on the team with 382 yards. Point being, there’s a wide gap between Smith-Schuster and the rest of his teammates. However, the Long Beach, CA, native has not registered a touchdown since November 13 against Colorado (3 receptions/66 yards/1 TD) and has not put up over 100 yards since November 7 against Arizona (8/138/1). Through his first nine games, Smith-Schuster averaged right around 122 yards/game. Through his last four? Right around 74 yards/game. Thus, Smith-Schuster will either continue his downward trend or revert back to the way he was playing to start the season.
As for the tight end position, well, there’s not much to see, here. Petite leads the unit in receptions (13) and receiving yards (119). However, and oddly enough, McNamara leads the unit in touchdowns with four, but only has 10 receptions for 62 yards. Ah, red zone targets will always do the trick: he had one catch for two yards and a touchdown against Arkansas State, one catch for four yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame, one catch for two yards and a touchdown against Colorado, and two catches (!) for 14 yards (!!) and a touchdown against UCLA.
Let us never forget the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers defense. Let us never forget defensive coordinator Dave Aranda! The End. In all seriousness though, this unit was a lot of fun to watch on each and every snap. Across the board, you could make a strong argument that this unit is the best one in the country – 1st in points/game (13.1), 1st in yards/game (267.1), 3rd in rushing yards/game (98.2), and 5th in passing yards/game (168.9). One of the lone knocks is that they do not get after the passer very often, as they only sack the quarterback 2.2 times/game, good for 57th. However, USC allows 2.7 sacks/game, which stands as 100th in the country (i.e., not good), so something has to give at Qualcomm Stadium.
I also really like the emergence of outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who's been a force off the edge throughout the last few weeks. With Joe Schobert, the conference linebacker of the year and All-American honoree, and Vince Biegel, an all-around animal, I would think that the front seven could provide some disruption and force Kessler to make some ill-advised throws. Schobert and Biegel have combined for 17.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss. Although UW hasn't not played a quarterback of Kessler's caliber the entire season, if the Badgers can force the Trojans into obvious passing downs and call up some creative blitzes, Wisconsin may have some success. USC’s third down conversion percentage (39.43%) is 65th in the country - there is hope.
Cornerback Sojourn Shelton has played much better than he did a season ago (six pass breakups, one interception in 2015), but he is going to have a difficult time against Smith-Schuster. I would expect Aranda to throw several different looks at the star wide receiver, most likely bump-and-run coverage and consistently shading a safety over to help - straight single coverage will be rare because Smith-Schuster's just too good. I also wonder how much time Darius Hillary (six pass breakups) or Derrick Tindal (five pass breakups) will spend on containing the star WR. Still, Tanner McEvoy’s play-making ability at safety (six interceptions & six pass breakups) and Michael Caputo’s toughness and solid tackling should be strong enough to keep Kessler from looking like Carson Palmer 2.0.
The Trojans’ defense has featured many highs and lows over the course of the 2015 season. As to the latter, the unit allowed 25.9 points/game (51st), 400.9 yards/game (67th), and 253.8 passing yards/game (94th). As to the former, the unit sacked the quarterback roughly three times/game (13th) and held running backs to 147 rush yards/game (36th), as well as 4.0 yards/rush attempt (40th).
To no one's surprise, USC has plenty of athletes on the defensive side of the ball and enough to potentially make for a long afternoon for offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. Among the front seven, senior defensive tackle Delvon Simmons and junior linebacker Su’a Cravens, who recently announced his intentions to enter into the NFL Draft, were both 1st-team All-Pac 12 selections. Simmons was second on the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (8.5), while Cravens tied for first in tackles (78), and first in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (5.5). Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was another 1st-team All-Pac 12 selection, who registered six pass breakups and one interception.
While USC’s defensive unit is not lights-out by any means, it very well could be for years to come, thanks to the play of two freshmen this season. Linebacker Cameron Smith is tied for first in interceptions (3), while also accounting for the highest percentage of team tackles (8.4%), according to SB Nation. Freshman Iman Marshall leads the team in pass breakups (7) and is tied for first in interceptions (3).
All in all, USC’s defense is not better than Dave Aranda’s bunch (not many are), but it should be able to impose its will against a pretty mediocre Wisconsin offense for long stretches.
In terms of national recognition, a bowl victory for Wisconsin against one of the few traditionally elite programs would be a huge step in the right direction. Not to mention, it would give the fan base some confidence that Paul Chryst can win big games. However, that huge step is going to have to wait.
I believe that the offensive line will not be able to handle USC's speed upfront and, honestly, who knows how healthy Corey Clement actually is. Plus, Stave could very well have another clunker of a game, and that simply will not cut it against the Trojans. USC wins the Holiday Bowl for the second-straight year, 24-16.
P.S. Next year is going to be brutal; the schedule features LSU (at Lambeau Field), Ohio State, at Michigan State, at Michigan, and at Iowa, so start looking ahead to 2017?