A tumultuous season will come to an end for USC on Wednesday night when the Trojans take on the Wisconsin Badgers in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
The Trojans, who come in with an 8-5 record, are making their second consecutive appearance in the Holiday Bowl. They defeated Nebraska 45-42 last year.
Since then, USC has undergone another season filled with controversy and subplots, namely Clay Helton replacing Steve Sarkisian as head coach following Sarkisian’s dismissal five games into the season.
But the Trojans completed the regular season 5-2 under Helton, finishing one win shy of a Rose Bowl appearance after falling to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
They will settle for a return trip to Qualcomm Stadium against a Wisconsin team that boasts a 9-3 record but has yet to beat a team over .500. The Badgers finished third in the Big Ten West Division behind Northwestern and Iowa.
USC’s explosive offense will have its hands full facing an impressive Wisconsin defense, which is the stingiest in the nation, allowing just 13.1 points per game. The Badgers also rank third in total defense, allowing 267.1 yards per game. Conversely, the Trojans average 34.9 points and 449.6 yards per game.
“[Wisconsin’s] front seven is without question one of the best we’ve gone against all year,” Helton said in a press conference on Tuesday. “They bring them from everywhere, field backer, inside backer, boundary backer. Very, very well coached defense, going to be a great challenge for us.”
It will also be a test for USC’s coaching staff, which is in flux after Helton fired four assistants following the Dec. 5 loss to Stanford in the conference championship game: defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, defensive line coach Chris Wilson, defensive backs coach Keith Heyward and offensive line coach Bob Connelly.
Peter Sirmon, the linebackers coach, will fill in for Wilcox and call defensive plays. Helton will call plays on offense one final time before handing over the reigns to Tee Martin, the wide receivers coach who was promoted to offensive coordinator two weeks ago.
USC will likely be without starting cornerback Kevon Seymour (ankle) and wide receiver Isaac Whitney (collarbone). Starting left tackle Chad Wheeler, who was involved in an incident with police on Dec. 19, did not travel with the team.
The Trojans have won six of their last seven bowl games, while the Badgers have dropped four of their last five.
Though USC is 6-0 all-time against Wisconsin, the two schools have not faced each other since 1966. The most memorable matchup happened in 1963, when the No. 1 ranked Trojans defeated the No. 2 ranked Badgers in the Rose Bowl.
Still, the matchup features two programs ripe with history.
“I see it as one of the premier games in the college bowl experience this year,” Helton said. “When you talk about the tradition of USC and the tradition of Wisconsin, what two quality teams they are, and then you put it in prime time…what a great game for the nation, and what a great game for our two programs.”
Kick-off is set for 7:30 in San Diego and the game will be televised on ESPN.