A Rafael Gaglianone field goal with 2:29 remaining lifted Wisconsin to a 23-21 win over No. 25 USC in the Holiday Bowl Wednesday night in San Diego, giving the Badgers their first win over the Trojans in now seven tries. Wednesday night’s game was the pair’s first meeting since 1966.
The Badgers actually appeared to take the lead one drive earlier, as Tanner McEvoy took a direct snap and ran around the right side. Officials ruled he stepped out of bounds but replays show he did stay in bounds. What would have been a long touchdown run was taken off the board in controversial fashion.
Joel Stave‘s nose was stepped on by a cleat on the play, forcing him to give way to back-up quarterback Bart Houston, who fired two incomplete passes and led to a Badgers punt from the USC 41.
Wisconsin forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, then drove 42 yards to set Rafael Gaglianone up for a go-ahead 29-yard field goal.
Though Gaglianone knocked in the winning score, it was outside linebacker Jack Cichy that was the star of the game for the Badgers. Cichy ended the drive following the go-ahead field goal by forcing Cody Kessler into his first interception since Nov. 13 into the waiting arms of Sojourn Shelton — it was Wisconsin’s first interception by a cornerback since the 2013 season — at the USC 46 with 1:44 left to play. The Badgers managed to kill 65 of the remaining 104 seconds, leaving USC a scant 36 seconds to try a game-winning field goal. Their last-gasp drive moved 40 yards before turning the ball over on downs at midfield with three seconds left on the clock.
Prior to forcing the interception, Cichy single-handedly killed a USC possession by sacking Kessler on three consecutive plays.
The former walk-on, suspended for the first half for a targeting hit in the Badgers’ season finale against Minnesota, entered the Holiday Bowl with two sacks on the entire season.
After a scoreless first quarter, Wisconsin jumped to a 10-0 lead thanks to a 28-yard Gaglianone boot and a six-yard Corey Clement touchdown run. USC answered with a three-and-a-half minute drive that culminated in a one-yard Justin Davis plunge, but Wisconsin closed the first half with another short field goal, then opened the second half with a four-yard scoring strike from Stave to Austin Traylor, giving the Badgers a 20-7 lead at the 7:49 mark of the third quarter.
USC used another Davis run and a seven-yard toss from Kessler to Darreus Rogers to take a 21-20 lead with 10:19 left to play, but the Trojans were unable to protect the lead.
Kessler closed his college career by hitting 18-of-32 passes for 221 yards with a touchdown, an interception and, oddly, a seven-yard out on the decisive 4th-and-10 with the game in its dying moments. Ronald Jones led the Trojans’ ground efforts with eight carries for 47 yards, and JuJu Smith-Schuster caught four passes for 65 yards.
The loss dropped USC to 8-6 on the season, and pushed Clay Helton to 0-2 as the Trojans’ full-time head coach.
Stave led the Badgers by connecting on 18-of-27 throws for 217 yards with a touchdown and no picks, and Clement charged for 66 yards and one score on 19 carries. Alex Erickson grabbed a game-high five passes for 54 yards.
The win allowed Wisconsin to close the year and Paul Chryst‘s first season as the head Badger at 10-3, giving the program double-digit victories in two straight and five of the last seven seasons.