Cody Kessler leads Trojans against talented Wisconsin defense
In the past year, both Holiday Bowl teams had unexpected head coaching changes. Last December Wisconsin’s head coach Gary Andersen left for Oregon State citing admission hardships at Wisconsin. This October, USC’s head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired for cause due to multiple alcohol related incidents. In both cases, former in-house offensive coordinators stepped up to take over the program. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst returned from a three-year head coaching stint at Pittsburgh and USC’s Clay Helton immediately took over as the interim head coach and was rewarded the full time position after receiving a full endorsement from the USC staff and players. While the Holiday Bowl is the 2015 finale, if feels like a potential springboard for both regimes.
A 9-3 record in a power five conference is rarely seen as a disappointment. For an elite program like Wisconsin, it has been mostly perceived as an underachieving season. This is largely due to how they fared against good teams. Of their nine wins, only one (Nebraska) had a positive grade. The Badgers two biggest tests of the season against Alabama and Iowa ended in defeat. The total opponent grade of Wisconsin’s eight remaining victories was -1,125. That is not a typo. Negative one thousand one hundred twenty five. Even though the Badgers have an extremely low strength of victory, they have put up some stout defensive numbers. Their defensive grade of +198.8 ranks fifth in the country. They have an excellent linebacker core anchored by pass rusher extraordinaire, Joe Schobert. Schobert is first in the nation in Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) among outside linebackers at 21.4.
Wisconsin’s biggest problem has been on the offensive side of the ball, especially the offensive line. The Badgers used seven different offensive line combinations during the regular season and have only one reliable lineman in left tackle Tyler Marz (+13.1). Every other Wisconsin lineman had a negative grade for 2015. This could play right into the strength of the USC defense. Starting with run stuffer Delvon Simmons (+27.5), the Trojans have been formidable against the run. USC should be able to keep the running game in check and make Wisconsin a one dimensional on offense.
In terms of opponents, USC had a much tougher schedule than Wisconsin. The Trojans total opponent grade in victories was +164 and they did not lose to a negatively graded team. The total grade of the teams they lost to was +797. The most impressive part of the Trojans season was how they finished the season. Helton took over after the team’s fifth game and they won five of their last seven regular season games to earn a spot in the Pac-12 championship game where they were beaten for the second time this season by Stanford. The success was mostly credited to Helton’s decision to shift the offensive identity to a power running team that proved to be a good fit for the personnel in place.
Players to watch
Cody Kessler (QB, USC)
Besides coach Helton’s offensive adjustments, the most credit for USC’s stretch run goes to Kessler. Kessler posted a grade of +16.1 during the last seven regular season games. He is especially good when facing pressure. His 70.6 accuracy under pressure percentage is second in the country. This is important because he’ll be facing…
Joe Schobert (LB, Wisconsin)
Schobert is the best pass rushing outside linebacker in the country by a wide margin. His PRP is 29 percent higher than the second place linebacker. Schobert splits his time equally between rushing from the left and from the right side. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin matches him up with or avoids USC’s mammoth right tackle and best offensive lineman Zach Banner (+23.5).
Although the Wisconsin defense is the best unit in this game, USC has a more balanced team and has proven themselves against better competition. The Trojans will be motivated under Helton and Kessler, who will be playing in his last college game.
USC 27, Wisconsin 17