Wisconsin is 0-6 all-time against USC with the last meeting coming in 1966. Under first year head coach Paul Chryst, the Badgers went 9-3 this year with the three losses coming against Alabama, Iowa, and Northwestern. We spoke with Bucky's 5th Quarter site manager Jake Kocorowski about tomorrow's matchup.
1) Wisconsin is on their 3rd head coach in four years. How would you rate Paul Chryst’s first year?
JK: If you were to tell me at the beginning of the season the Badgers would have nine wins without standout running back Corey Clement for nine of those 12 games, I would have said you were crazy.
Chryst has done a great job reintroducing himself to (he recruited some of these players as offensive coordinator at UW until 2011) and winning over the team in general. The new coaching staff's revamped the strength and conditioning program, and Chryst has also brought in some assistants that have helped further develop the players.
On the field, Wisconsin won the games they should have -- which their opponents' combined records this year were very far below .500 -- and didn't beat a program with a winning record. The Badgers were a goal line fumble away from beating a Iowa and a referee's interpretation of a catch away from beating Northwestern, both ranked teams playing on New Year's Day. The bowl game against USC will really be a measuring stick to see if the Badgers can gain momentum for next year and finish this year strong. A real litmus test comes in 2016 when UW plays LSU at Lambeau Field, then start the Big Ten conference season against Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State.
In terms of recruiting, most services rank them within the top 30 in the nation, which is impressive considering many didn't feel the former Wisconsin player and assistant didn't necessarily have the most "pizzazz" -- but they've received verbal commitments from some impressive recruits that they can mold down the road into major contributors to the team.
2) This was supposed to be Corey Clement’s year to breakout. Then off the field issues and injuries took over. Will the Badgers have a RBBC approach to the Holiday Bowl and if not, who will be the lead back?
JK: As of yesterday, Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle told the Wisconsin State Journal's (and former B5Q writer) Jason Galloway that he expected Clement to play. How much, however, is yet to be seen, as Chryst hasn't been committal towards his star back's status. That's mostly due to his sports hernia injury, which is still causing soreness for Clement -- who admitted he's around 85 percent back last week when meeting with reporters. Clement can make a big impact, as he ran for 115 yards on 11 carries and three touchdowns in a 48-10 win over Rutgers back on Halloween. Behind him are serviceable backs who can flash but aren't the game breakers like Clement. Former walk-on and converted cornerback Dare Ogunbowale leads the team in rushing with 769 yards but also is a threat in the passing game out of the backfield. He's second on the team in receptions with 34. Redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal has shown potential in between injuries as a power runner, but is still learning patience and following his blocks.
Behind them, true freshman and converted inside linebacker Alec Ingold is more of the short yardage/goal line back. He's 6'2, 237 pounds, and despite rushing for less than three yards per carry, has six rushing touchdowns.
3) If and it’s a big if, USC is able to stop the Badgers running game and Wisconsin is forced to throw the ball a lot, how much confidence does Chryst have in quarterback Joel Stave?
JK: USC has a great chance to stop the run, as it's expected the Badgers are to start four redshirt freshman for the second consecutive game. This hasn't been your stereotypical Wisconsin offense that displays a physical, punishing running game in 2015. They've averaged only 148.1 yards per game on the ground, though it appeared the line started to gel with 257 yards, 199 in the first half, against Minnesota on Nov. 29.
Stave and the passing game has had to carry Wisconsin in most of the games this season. He has Chryst's confidence since the spring, when he named the former walk-on as the starter to begin those practices. He's shown progression from last year, anticipating where receivers will be and showing the confidence to put the ball where it needs to be. He's completed over 60 percent of his passes and has averaged over 200 yards per game through the air, a stark difference between this season and a rough 2014 campaign.
Then again, Stave's been known to make costly mistakes. His fumble at the goal line, along with four turnovers total, against Iowa cost them the game and a Big Ten West division title. He'll throw errant passes, as seen against Purdue, Rutgers and Northwestern. In his last six games, he's thrown only two touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions. This season, in fact, he's thrown more picks (11) than touchdowns (10).
If Stave and the passing game get on track -- utilizing wide receivers Alex Erickson, a hopefully returning Robert Wheelwright, and Wisconsin's tight ends, with Ogunbowale being that threat out of the backfield -- Wisconsin has a chance in this game. But Stave needs to limit his mistakes and get in a rhythm, along with staying upright.
4) The Badgers defense is lights out. Who are some players to watch?
JK: The stars of the defense start at the outside linebacker position. Senior Joe Schobert and redshirt junior Vince Biegel have combined for 17.5 sacks, which is the most for any linebacking duo in the nation, and 32.5 tackles for loss, which places them fourth-best in the FBS. They're sound in their fundamentals and have that explosiveness that could give opposing offensive lines fits. Schobert, in particular, has come into his own this year. Another former walk-on, he's received second-team All-American honors from many publications while also received a first-team nod from the FWAA. His 18.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks helped him earn the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year award. Both he and Biegel, the latter the flashier, more known name of the dynamic duo, have been tough to stop this season.
Along with those two, redshirt senior safety Michael Caputo leads a secondary that has given up only 165 yards per game through the air. Veteran cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton have played quite well in 2015, but will have to contend with some talented players for USC. Redshirt senior wide receiver/safety hybrid Tanner McEvoy leads the team with six interceptions, and the former quarterback has played very well as a 6'6 free safety (though his tackling could use a little better form).
5) If you were the defensive coordinator for Wisconsin, what would be your game plan to stop USC’s offense?
JK: The best way, like the Badgers have done for most of the year, has been to stop the run first. They've only allowed 97.9 yards per game on the ground, fourth best in the nation. They have to limit Justin Davis and Ronald Jones on Wednesday to make USC one dimensional.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is known as the "mad scientist" with his subpackages and schemes for different opponents. He'll find ways to get Schobert, Biegel, and others involved with blitz packages and get pressure on Cody Kessler and the Trojans' offense. I think you'll see some different looks from the Badgers to keep USC off their game in pass protection.
Juju Smith-Schuster will be a challenge to cover, but if they can double cover him and limit the second and third options for Kessler in the passing game, the Badgers have a chance.
6) Wisconsin is 0-6 all-time against USC? What needs to happen in order for the Badgers to beat the Trojans?
JK: On defense, it's going to have to be stopping the run and also limiting the Kessler to Smith-Schuster connection. For the latter, whether it's coverage schemes, cranking up the pressure on Kessler, or a combination of both, they'll need to keep the talented combo from hurting them with big plays -- which the Badgers have been able to do so far this year.
On offense, it's to avoid turnovers and establish the run. The passing game can carry Wisconsin at times, but an established running game could keep the Trojans' defense on edge and open up so much more. I think the additions of a healthy Wheelwright, a junior wide receiver who was really coming into his own before injuries sidelined him for the last part of the season, could really play a factor in giving the Badgers a more potent attack through the air and avoid costly interceptions.
JK: I'm going to say 28-27 UW for now -- if Clement plays and is effective. If his running backs coach believes he'll see the field on Wednesday, he adds that gamebreaker factor that Wisconsin's offense has been sorely missing for most of this season.
The defense will be tested against an athletic USC offense. I think it's a close game, but the defense has one last stand and seals a win with a turnover. There's quite a lot of respect for the Trojans by the Badgers, and it should be a great game.