The Holiday Bowl has always been one of the more fun December bowl games. From Jim McMahon's wild comeback in 1980 to USC holding off a last-ditch comeback from Nebraska to win 45-42 last season, the Holiday Bowl has been historically a place where while the records might not be elite, the offenses usually were. This season, on the other hand, might tell a different story.
The returning USC Trojans are a different team than the team that traveled down I-5 last year. Gone are Nelson Agholor and Javorius Allen to the NFL, and with that the efficient as hell passing attack never really got untracked. JuJu Smith-Schuster is arguably the best receiver the Badgers will face this season, and he filled the passing void admirably for Cody Kessler. Beyond that, the Trojans have really gone out and had a "take what they can get" open passing attack.
Eight healthy Trojans (not counting the injured Tre Madden) ended up with double digit receptions. It's been more of a show for Steven Mitchell Jr. and Darreus Rogers as the season has gone on, but they are both receivers who tend to have alliterative receiving lines (4 catches for 44 yards, and such). Kessler will have to deal with a shuffling of the offensive line as left tackle Chad Wheeler is also out for the game. Zach Banner is going to flip from right to left tackle and five-star true freshman Chuma Edoga will get another start at right tackle. It's a physically gifted offensive line, but it's also caused 35 sacks in 13 games. Outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel are talented at getting to the quarterback. It's a matchup that makes one think they will try to establish the run to get the Badgers defense on their heels.
More on the Game
More on the Game
After all, it was the running game that helped right the Trojans ship after the rocky transition from Steve Sarkisian to Clay Helton. With backs as talented and fast as Justin Davis and Ronald Jones, you have to pay attention to what they can do on the ground. The Badgers have a top-five rushing defense giving up only 97.9 yards per game, and with true freshman inside linebacker Chris Orr healthy, you're not going to have any on paper reason to worry about the front seven are going to do on the Badgers side. This season, a statistically good rushing defense has been able to slow what the Trojans do running the ball. The Badgers have the ability to do that.
On the offensive side of the ball, this is the closest to healthy the Badgers have been all season. The offensive line is looking like it's redshirt senior left tackle Tyler Marz and then four redshirt freshmen, but junior running back Corey Clement could play and start the rebuilding process from the lost season (at least his running backs coach expects him to play). As it goes, you'll likely see the Badgers get Dare Ogunbowale even if Clement is full stop ready to go. But USC is a step up from Minnesota in terms of the rush defense. I mean, obviously, right? Trusting the freshmen to open holes is a touch of a scary proposition.
There is no way possible to make a smooth segue from that phrase to Joel Stave, but we must press on. With a healthy Rob Wheelwright, the Badgers are going to have the most full complement of targets for Joel Stave to throw too. Alex Erickson is closing in on UW's all-time single-season receptions record, and Jazz Peavy is a good third receiver. Austin Traylor and Troy Fumagalli are both quality pass catching tight ends. When you add Ogunbowale as a quality safety valve, it's six viable options through the air. If the Trojans don't get to Stave, he can do some things through the air. What exactly the Trojans plan on defense is in question, as linebackers coach Peter Sirmon is game planning the defense after Helton cleaned house on the defensive coaching staff.
So, this is the sort of game where there are multiple viable endings. You can see the Badgers struggle to get to Kessler, and the disappointing quarterback the Badgers would kill for has a big day -- while the youth on the Badgers offensive line causes the Badgers to fall behind, and Stave doesn't get off to a good start on the NFL job interview cause the self same offensive line gets him smashed in the pass rush.
You can see the Badgers defense stifle USC against the run and Clement plays like the preseason Heisman trophy candidate, and Wisconsin comes away with its second consecutive bowl win.
It's going to be interesting to see what happens. This is a game where the Badgers match up better than expected. I'm going to cop out on a winner, but I get the sense the first team to 21 wins.