Cody Kessler

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USC expected to name starting QB ‘shortly after spring game’

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For those wondering who will be under center for USC when it opens up the 2016 season, your wait is likely almost over.

In the competition to replace Cody Kessler as the Trojans’ starting quarterback, it’s essentially been a two-man race: Max Browne, the presumptive front-runner, and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. While many an observer had all but given the starting job to the former five-star Browne, Darnold has, by all accounts, closed the gap considerably since the start of spring practice last month.

With the Trojans set to put the finishing touches on practice with the spring game Saturday evening, first-year head coach Clay Helton is set to put the finishing touches on this phase of the quarterback competition shortly thereafter.

“I’m going to let it go through the spring game and then make a decision,” Helton said in comments distributed by the school. “Just being honest, I don’t think there’s a huge gap between the quarterbacks. I want to take it to the spring game, that atmosphere, and see how the guys react.”

Nearly a week ago, Helton acknowledged that “[t]here is a gap and I think obviously Max is in the lead right now.” The fact that Helton now describes the competition as lacking “a huge gap” has led some to rethink the front-runner, although it would still be considered a little more than mildly surprising if the starter exiting the spring is anyone other than Browne.

The last two seasons as Kessler’s primary backup, the redshirt junior Browne completed 11-of-19 passes for 143 yards. Darnold, meanwhile, was a four-star dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2015 who took a redshirt as a true freshman last season.

This season, USC will open against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Tex.

Late interception gives Wisconsin its first win over USC

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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.


CFT Previews: Holiday Bowl

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WHO: No. 25 USC (8-5) vs. Wisconsin (9-3)
WHAT: The 38th Holiday Bowl
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California
WHEN: 10:30 p.m. ET, Dec. 30 on ESPN
THE SKINNY: At one point this season it looked as though USC could have imploded. The firing of Steve Sarkisian five weeks into the season could have made for a messy season, but Clay Helton has managed to keep the Trojans going and made sure they played for the Pac-12 championship they were chosen to win back during media days. It was quite a roller coaster to get there that saw back-to-back losses in a coaching transition, a blowout win of Utah, a blowout loss at Oregon and a dominating victory against UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South. Although USC went 0-2 against Stanford this year, the Trojans proved to be a dangerous team with Cody Kessler throwing 28 touchdowns with just six interceptions thrown and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster racking up 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior linebacker Su’a Cravens and freshman linebacker Cameron Smith showed the legacy at the position should continue to thrive after the two led the team in tackles this fall.

USC will look for its third straight bowl victory, and second under Helton. To do that the Trojans must take out Wisconsin from the Big Ten. The Badgers have had a rough time in bowl games played in California since the turn of the century. Wisconsin lost three straight Rose Bowls from 2010 through 2013. Now they move to San Diego this postseason looking to buck that trend. In year one under Paul Chryst, the Badgers turned in a sneaky decent season with a 9-3 record on the strength of one of the top defensive showings this season. Wisconsin allowed just 97.9 yards per game on the ground and 169.2 passing yards per game. That helped fuel Wisconsin’s defense, anchored by senior linebacker Joe Schobert, allowing just 13.1 points per game to lead the nation.

Running the football tends to be the recipe for success in Madison, but the status of top running back Corey Clement is a concern. Clement is working through a sports hernia injury and hopes to play a key role in Wisconsin’s game plan against the Trojans. If Clement is not able to carry the football much, the Badgers still have Dare Ogunbowale to help out after rushing for 769 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Wisconsin may have won nine games, with close losses to Iowa and Northwestern, but what happens against one fo the most athletic teams they have faced this season? Alabama steamrolled Wisconsin in Week 1. USC won’t do that, but the Trojans may have a chance to make some plays even against this solid Wisconsin defense.

THE PREDICTION: USC 26, Wisconsin 23

MSU’s Connor Cook is 2015 Unitas Golden Arm Award winner

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Let’s get this out of the way upfront: The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award is awarded annually to quarterbacks who are either college seniors or fourth-year juniors who are scheduled to graduate with their class.  Thanks in advance for your cooperation in this matter.

With that out of the way, the winner of the Unitas Golden Arm Award was announced Tuesday afternoon, with the 2015 honor going to Michigan State’s Connor Cook.  The senior was one of five finalists for the award, the other four being TCU’s Trevone Boykin, USC’s Cody Kessler, Memphis’ Paxton Lynch and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott.

Cook is just the second Big Ten player in the 29-year history of the award to win it, joining Wisconsin’s Scott Tolzien in 2010.

“Connor Cook is a proven winner,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said in a statement. “His 34-4 record as a starter is a tremendous statistic, and he’s played well on the big stage throughout his career. He has a big arm, quick release and good presence in the pocket. Connor has been very patient with his reads and has displayed remarkable accuracy in critical situations. He remains cool under pressure, and he has the knack for making plays when the game is on the line. Most importantly, he has been an outstanding game manager and leader. Connor is consistently playing at a high level, and he gives us a chance to win every game.”

Cook’s 34 wins are the second-most of any current quarterback, behind only the 35 of Stanford’s Kevin Hogan. Cook and his Spartans will get the opportunity to add to that total as they face Alabama in one of the two playoff semifinals New Year’s Eve.

Christian McCaffrey leads Stanford to Pac-12 title, breaks FBS yardage record

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On a night when Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson made their Heisman Trophy statements, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey would need a big night to stay in the conversation — not to mention beat USC and win a Pac-12 Championship. He did both, and then some.

The all-purpose maven compiled 461 yards and led his seventh-ranked Cardinal to a 41-22 win over No. 20 USC in the Pac-12 Championship Saturday night in Santa Clara, Calif. The win gives Stanford its third Pac-12 championship in four years and — at worst — sends the Cardinal to its 15th Rose Bowl.

McCaffrey’s 461 yards on the night were enough to push him to 3,496 on the season, surpassing Barry Sanders‘ single-season FBS record of 3,250 all-purpose yards set in 1988. And he did it while playing with Sanders’ namesake son in his own backfield.

In a first half claimed 13-3 by Stanford, McCaffrey provided the game’s only touchdown with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Hogan on the first play of the second quarter. USC charged to the lead over the first 10 minutes of the second half thanks to a Cody Kessler touchdown pass to Jahleel Penner and a 27-yard Ronald Jones run.

Faced with its first deficit of the game, the Cardinal turned to McCaffrey and he delivered. After two rushes for four yards, Hogan found McCaffrey for a 67-yard snatch-and-dash, taking the ball from the Stanford 26 to the USC 7. Hogan scored one play later to put the Cardinal on top — for good.

Solomon Thomas gave Stanford a firm hold on the ensuing possession when he returned a Kessler fumble 34 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cardinal a 27-16 lead with four seconds to play in the third quarter.

After a Kessler touchdown run pulled the Trojans within five at 27-22, McCaffrey again answered with a six-yard receptions, runs of six, eight, five and three yards and, finally, a 28-yard touchdown reception.

McCaffrey added a rushing score, this time from 10 yards out, to put the game away for good with 1:38 remaining and give him three scores by way of three different avenues. The sophomore closed the night with 32 carries for 207 yards and a touchdown, four receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown, an 11-yard touchdown pass, five kickoff returns for 120 yards, two punt returns for 29 yards and, if the voters do their jobs correctly, a plane ticket to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.