It’s been an up-and-down season for the Wisconsin Badgers, to say the least. Close, controversial home losses to Iowa and Northwestern have resulted in the Badgers facing off against USC in the Holiday Bowl, although it’s fair to point out that UW looked very complacent against lesser competition throughout the season. Wednesday’s matchup will prove if the Badgers are ready to step up to the plate against one of the Pac 12’s more confusing but talented teams.

USC has had an even rockier season, beating teams like Utah, Cal and UCLA, but losing five games along the way, not to mention head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was suspended and then fired back in October. The Badgers have a stronger record in a conference that had an even better year than the Pac 12, but USC comes in boasting wins against stronger opponents.

On top of that, the two teams have very contrasting styles that may lead to the perfect matchup for one another. Wisconsin is fueled by one of the best defenses in the FBS, one that they’ve relied on repeatedly throughout the season. Meanwhile, USC deploys a high-powered offensive attack that averages a hair under 35 points per game on the season.

Can the Badgers hold USC under 30?

This is the key to beating USC, although it comes with a caveat: all five of USC’s losses have come when they’re held under 32 points, but most of these games have been shootouts. Needless to say, Wisconsin does not want to get into a shootout with an elite offense like USC. The defense must continue to play at a high level if the Badgers want to win this game.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has done a stellar job with his defense this season. They’ve created pressure, plugged a lot of running holes and (mostly) avoided giving up big plays in the secondary. Their success has been the antithesis of the offense: consistency. This is a defense that leads all FBS teams in points allowed per possession (.82), ahead of defensive stalwarts like Alabama and Ohio State.

Joe Schobert has led the nation's best defense (courtesy of
Joe Schobert has led the nation’s best defense (courtesy of
Crucially, they’ve also kept teams out of the red zone. Wisconsin has allowed the fewest trips of any FBS defense, only yielding 22 red zone opportunities in 12 games. And when teams do manage to get there, they’ve only allowed a touchdown on 36.4% of trips, good for second in the FBS. If they can hold USC to field goals instead of touchdowns, they’ll have a great shot at winning this game. Their biggest task will be stopping receivers Adoree’ Jackson and Juju Smith-Schuster.

Which Joel Stave will show up?

As I mentioned above, I think I speak for all Badger fans when I say that nobody wants to see a game in which Joel Stave is trying to win a shootout. Though he’s posted the best numbers of his odd career this season, throwing the ball has never been this team’s identity, and Stave has always been plagued by inconsistency.

Stave has been disadvantaged by the injuries that have partly decimated the offense, with key players going down at the receiver, tight end, lineman and running back positions. But this is the healthiest the offense has been in a while, so there aren’t as many excuses. The Badgers (hopefully) don’t need Stave to win this game as much as they just need him not to lose it. Stave is at his best when he’s making quick, smart decisions, often to Alex Erickson, who has had 69% of his receptions go for first downs on the season.

Alex Erickson is having a record-setting season (courtesy of
Alex Erickson is having a record-setting season (courtesy of
Stave runs into trouble when he dances around in the pocket and tries to force balls into windows that simply aren’t there, especially in the red zone. The Badgers cannot afford to lose the turnover battle, which often proves to be the difference in close games (remember Northwestern?). Stave will need to be smart with the football and not turn it over in the red zone; doing so would allow a raucous Trojan crowd to pump too much momentum into the game.

Who will run the ball better?

This one is pretty simple, and will be the second most important factor after winning the turnover battle. The Badgers have only had a 100-yard rusher in five games this season, winning all five. The Trojans, meanwhile, are 1-5 while allowing a 100-yard rusher in a game. Both teams are capable of running the ball with more than one running back, and everyone has had time to get their legs fresh.

At the same time, both teams have dealt with injuries across their respective offensive lines, so this is all much easier said than done. The Badgers still have Corey Clement, and if they can get a good game out of him, they will have the advantage. USC, however, has the advantage of a much better passing attack that can open up huge holes in the running game. It’s time for these two squads to battle.


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