The Wisconsin Badgers (10-3, 6-2) entered the Holiday Bowl against the USC Trojans (8-6, 6-3) with the No. 1 scoring defense and ranked third in the nation in total defense. The Trojans averaged over 275 yards through the air and boasted a potent scoring offense that was led by quarterback Cody Kessler (67.6 completion percentage and 28 touchdown passes) and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (85 receptions).
Something had to give.
The Badgers allowed only 19 total yards more than their season average, holding USC to 286 yards and 5-of-14 on third-down conversions -- along with two huge defensive stands at the end of the fourth quarter. Couple that with a more balanced offense that ran efficiently enough to keep the Trojans on their toes in the passing game, and Wisconsin came away with a 23-21 victory on Wednesday night at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
1. The Wisconsin offense ran the ball well enough to be balanced, and Joel Stave-- who played well with NO turnovers -- is now the winningest quarterback in school history. The Badgers ran for 177 yards on 46 carries, helped by junior running back Corey Clement returning to the lineup. Though the standout only rushed for 3.5 yards per carry, his 66 yards -- including a six-yard touchdown -- provided a spark and helped head coach Paul Chryst and his offense utilize play-action, especially with the four-yard touchdown pass from Stave to Austin Traylor in the third quarter that put UW up 20-7.
Stave finished the game 18-of-27 for 217 yards and one touchdown pass, and was named the Holiday Bowl offensive MVP. He played mistake-free football for the most part against the Trojans, and now has 31 wins in his career. Say what you want about wins not being a quarterback statistic, or some of the support in the running game last year, but the former walk-on made some solid throws and put the ball where his receivers could attempt to make a play, especially on that last drive.
2. Jack Cichy is a man-bear-pig. The former walk-on inside/outside linebacker missed the first half of the game due to the targeting penalty he was assessed in the second half of the Minnesota contest. He only came back to lead the team in tackles (nine) and sacks (three, all in one drive), caused Kessler to throw a poor pass that was intercepted by junior cornerback Sojourn Shelton late in the fourth quarter, then also drew a personal foul penalty on Wisconsin's last punt of the game that backed USC up to its own 10-yard line.
The fresh legs and energy exhibited by the Somerset, Wis., native surged the Badgers' defense when it need it most when it seemed USC could gain some momentum. Cichy was named the Holiday Bowl's Defensive MVP for his efforts. Whether he plays inside or outside at linebacker in 2016, he's primed for a huge season.
3. The 2015 Wisconsin defense is one to remember. USC posed a huge challenge, with Smith-Schuster being the most dynamic wide receiver UW had faced this season. The Trojans' running backs in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones came into the game each within 1,000 yards rushing for the season.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's squad held USC to 65 yards and 2.3 yards per rush, even lower than Wisconsin's average of allowing 97.9 yards per game. The Badgers constantly were making tackles behind the line of scrimmage (nine total tackles for loss) and held Kessler to only 18-of-32 passing for 221 yards.
If this was Aranda's last game at Wisconsin, this three-year run will be marked as one of the best defensive periods in school history. If he returns next year, he has a lot of talent coming back.
Honorable mention observations:
4. 2015 was not the year of calls going in Wisconsin's favor.
5. 2015 was the year walk-ons led the team in passing, rushing, receiving and sacks/tackles for loss.
6. The Badgers can beat a team with a winning record.