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
For the first time in program history, the school with the most football championships in Pac-12 history will play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) snapped its three-game losing streak against crosstown rival No. 22 UCLA (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12) in convincing fashion in the second half to pick up a 40-21 win and claim ownership of the Pac-12 South Division championship. The win will send USC to the Pac-12 Championship Game to play Pac-12 North champion Stanford next week.
USC quarterback Cody Kessler may not have put up huge numbers against the Bruins, but his 15-of-26 for 175 yards and two touchdowns without an interception was effective enough to lead the team to a victory. Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen for UCLA got his first dose of the rivalry with the Trojans, and it did not go as well. Rosen was picked off twice and he completed just 19 of his 37 pass attempts. Bruins running back Paul Perkins rushed for 95 yards and two scores, but USC’s Justin Davis was the big runner of the day with 130 rushing yards. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson made some big plays happen as well with a punt return for a touchdown. USC’s Rasheem Green had a 31-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave USC a 26-21 lead. This proved to be the game-winning score, as the Trojans continued to tack on a couple of more touchdowns on offense.
USC was the preseason favorite of the Pac-12 media at media day this summer, and now they have a chance to make good on those expectations. The fact they have arrived at this point is a fascinating story all by itself given the bumpy path it took to get to this point.
Stanford handed USC its first loss of the season in the early part of the season. The Cardinal took a 41-31 victory against the Trojans and never really looked back in conference play. USC struggled a few more times and had to go through an in-season coaching change with the firing of Steve Sarkisian. Clay Helton took over as the interim coach for the Trojans, and quickly calmed the stability of the program after a loss at Notre Dame. USC ripped through Utah to mix up the Pac-12 North and went on to win the next three games before hitting a speed bump on the road at Oregon against a resurgent Ducks program. USC has won more Pac-12 conference championships than any other conference member, including time as the Pac-8 or Pac-10, with 38 conference championships. It has not played in the Pac-12 Championship Game though, but that will change next week.
USC may be able to play spoiler for Stanford’s playoff dreams, if the Cardinal manage to beat Notre Dame tonight. The Pac-12 champion is still unlikely to sneak into the four-team playoff field, but Stanford is the one that has a slight chance to do so. USC, with four losses, will not have enough things bounce their way to make that giant leap.
Never kick to USC playmaker Adoree’ Jackson. That si the lesson UCLA learned the hard way late in the first half in The Los Angeles Coliseum this afternoon. A 42-yard punt return by Jackson gave USC a 20-14 lead late in the first half and gives the Trojans the edge at the midway point of what amounts to the Pac-12 South Division Championship Game. The winner of this game moves on to next week to face Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
USC was the first to put points on the scoreboard in the Coliseum when a lengthy drive stalled inside the red zone, forcing the Trojans to send Alex Woods out for a 30-yard field goal. It would take two more offensive possessions by UCLA to put their own points on the board. Paul Perkins ripped off a 19-yard touchdown run on a fourth and one play from the USC 19-yard line, giving UCLA the 7-3 lead.
USC put together a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive a couple of possessions later, with quarterback Cody Kessler punching one in from the goal line. UCLA’s Thomas Duarte hauled in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Josh Rosen in the second quarter to regain the lead, 14-10. That lead evaporated with USC’s special teams chipping in with a field goal and Jackson’s punt return.
Next week in the historic Los Angeles Coliseum, two rivals will enter but only one will leave with the Pac-12 South championship banner. Despite a loss today at Oregon, No. 24 USC (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) will get a chance to win the Pac-12 South Division at home and earn a trip to its first Pac-12 Championship Game. Standing in the way will be rival UCLA (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12), fresh of a road win against No. 13 Utah (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12).
UCLA did what it needed to do to remain in the driver’s seat of the Pac-12 South. Needing a win against Utah to secure a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Utes, UCLA got right to work out of the gate with a game-opening touchdown drive on the road (Josh Rosen to Thomas Duarte) and eventually took a 10-0 lead before letting the Utes wiggle back in with three field goals chipping away at the double-digit lead. Once Utah kicked a third field goal to cut the lead to one point, UCLA responded with a 14-play touchdown drive ending with Paul Perkins scoring a short touchdown run to put the Bruins up 17-9. That would prove to be more than enough, as that score held the rest of the way.
USC’s secondary was picked apart by Vernon Adams and Oregon in Autzen Stadium. Adams finished his day with six touchdowns thrown and 407 passing yards in a 45-28 victory over the Trojans. USC’s offense actually did some good things, outside of protecting quarterback Cody Kessler at times. Kessler avoided throwing an interception and Justin Davis led the running game with 141 yards. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had to leave the game temporarily in the first half but did return despite having to be helped off the field by trainers. USC’s defense gave up five touchdowns of at least 30 yards through the air, so they will have to find a way to tighten things up in the secondary before taking on UCLA next week. Oregon racked up 578 yards of offense in the win.
The Pac-12 South is now a two-horse race between USC and UCLA, as Utah has now been eliminated from contention. Utah needed to beat UCLA in order to stay ahead of the Trojans, but now the Utes cannot win as tiebreakers go against them. The winner of next week’s crosstown rivalry game will more than likely get a crack at Stanford. Stanford needs a win against Cal later tonight to claim the Pac-12 North title. A loss opens the door for Oregon to grab the North next week with a win over Oregon State. Stanford loses a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Ducks after Oregon upset the Cardinal last week. Stanford’s Pac-12 schedule wraps up tonight and they play Notre Dame next week.
The Pac-12 Championship Game will be played on December 5 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. UCLA appeared in the first two Pac-12 championship game sin 2011 and 2012, although USC won the Pac-12 South and was ineligible for postseason play in 2012 (USC pounded UCLA 50-0 that season).
A total of 17 of the nation’s top quarterbacks have been named a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award Monday by the Davey O’Brien Foundation. One of a handful of individual awards tailored for quarterbacks, the Davey O’Brien Award is the nation’s oldest of its kind. This year’s semifinalists include some familiar names as well, including Michigan State’s Connor Cook, TCU’s Trevone Boykin and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott. All three were named semifinalists last season (Boykin and Prescott would later be named finalists). It also includes a handful of passers from the Group of Five, including Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds out of the American Athletic Conference and Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson (MAC) and Brandon Doughty of Western Kentucky (Conference USA).
Oregon’s Marcus Mariota took home the award last season, becoming the first Pac-12 player to win the award since UCLA’s Troy Aikman won the award in 1988. The Pac-12 has some good candidates on the list of semifinalists again this season as well.
2015 Davey O’Brien Award Semifinalists
- Trevone Boykin (TCU)
- Connor Cook (Michigan State)
- Brandon Doughty (Western Kentucky)
- Luke Falk (Washington State)
- Jared Goff (California)
- Kevin Hogan (Stanford)
- Matt Johnson (Bowling Green)
- Cody Kessler (USC)
- Paxton Lynch (Memphis)
- Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech)
- Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma)
- Dak Prescott (Mississippi State)
- Keenan Reynolds (Navy)
- Josh Rosen (UCLA)
- Seth Russell (Baylor)
- Greg Ward Jr. (Houston)
- Deshaun Watson (Clemson)