In a season full of ups and downs, it seemed fitting for the the Trojans to end their 2015 campaign with a 23-21 loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl in a wild affair Wednesday night at Qualcomm Stadium.
After the Badgers went ahead 23-21 with less than three minutes remaining in the game on a field goal, redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler was intercepted by Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton on the third play of USC’s next drive.
The Trojans forced a punt, leaving them with 35 seconds and no timeouts to work with. They advanced to midfield before Kessler threw incomplete to junior wide receiver Darreus Rogers on a fourth-and-10 pass that would have been short of the first down anyway.
Kessler noted after the game that Rogers misread the down and distance.
“I probably should have just thrown the Hail Mary,” Kessler said. “Honestly it was not on [Rogers]. We were trying to get a quick 10 yards and get it out and make it an easier. I called the play and he came up after and said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know what down and distance it was.’”
“The team that made the least amount of mistakes won the game,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Really credit [Wisconsin] Coach [Paul] Chryst, his staff on a well-earned, hard-fought victory. We had enough mistakes in that game to get beat.”
The Trojans took their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter on a methodical drive with three third-down conversions. On third-and-four from the Badgers’ 23-yard line, Kessler found sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10-yard gain, and then on third-and-four from the seven-yard line, Kessler waited and patiently found Rogers for the touchdown to give the Trojans a 21-20 advantage.
After USC went three-and-out on its opening drive of the second half, the Badgers went on a 12-play, six-minute drive capped off with a four-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joel Stave to tight end Austin Traylor to put Wisconsin up 20-7.
But the Trojans answered with a quick drive that took just over two minutes, sparked by a 39-yard completion from Kessler to Smith-Schuster and a clever first down run by Jalen Greene on a lateral. On first and goal from the four-yard line, junior running back Justin Davis ran it in to cut the Badgers’ advantage to 20-14 with five minutes to play in the third quarter.
USC outgained Wisconsin 221-217 in the air but struggled to implement the run game with just 65 rushing yards to the Badgers’ 177.
“They’ve got a solid front five and the tackles and the guards that I was going against were competitive and physical on the run,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Delvon Simmons said. “It was a competitive game. They came out ready to work, we came out ready to work and they came out on top and that’s unfortunate.”
Wisconsin took a 10-0 lead with just under nine minutes to play in the first half on a 74-yard drive that took just six plays. Stave completed all three of his pass attempts on the drive, the latter of which was a 26-yard completion to Traylor that set up a first and goal. On the next play, Corey Clement ran it in from six yards out – a play that was deemed a touchdown upon video review – to open up a two score advantage for the Badgers.
The Trojans’ offense finally showed signs of life midway through the second quarter when it crossed midfield for the first time. The drive featured two fourth down conversions, the first a 34-yard catch-and-run by sophomore Adoree’ Jackson to the two-yard line of Wisconsin and the second a leaping touchdown by Davis on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line to put USC on the board and cut the lead to 10-7.
The score came after freshman Ronald Jones II’s two-yard touchdown run was negated by a holding penalty and Smith-Schuster was tackled just short of the goal line on a third-down catch.
The Badgers answered with a 33-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglianone and took a 13-7 lead into halftime.
The first quarter was scoreless and featured just 107 yards of total offense from each team. Both USC and Wisconsin punted twice after their drives stalled.
“I thought our offensive line in that first quarter had some missed assignments in that set us back,” Helton said on the slow start. “And once again we came out just like [in the Stanford game] and started off a little slow assignment wise, and it cost us.”
The Badgers got on the board first with a 28-yard field goal early in the second quarter by Gaglianone, set up by a one-handed 21-yard catch by Robert Wheelwright that put Wisconsin in the red zone.
Wisconsin entered the game boasting the nation’s top defense, which allowed just 13.1 points per game prior to Wednesday night. The Trojans came into the night averaging 34.9 points per game.
The Trojans end the season with an 8-6 record, finishing 5-4 under Helton, who took over midway through the year after Steve Sarkisian’s dismissal. Helton, who was given the permanent head coaching job before the Pac-12 Championship game, does not see the sour end to the season affecting the team’s future.
“[We] won a Pac-12 South Championship,” Helton said. “We haven’t done that in a while, and to be able to do that and go to the Pac-12 Championship game and come to the Holiday Bowl, I think we’re on the rise. I think our future is very, very bright, and I do not let this game deter it. It was two really good teams that had a very hard-fought game, and we just came out on the short end of the stick.”
Kessler, the redshirt senior whose final game as a Trojan did not go to according to plan, concurred that the future is promising under Helton.
“We went through the darkest times so that there could be a bright future,” Kessler said. “I really believe that this team is going to make some noise next year and a lot of that’s due to Coach Helton. I know he’s going to get these guys ready next year, and it’s going to be fun to watch.”