SAN DIEGO-A win in the final game of the season wasn’t in the cards for the USC Trojans. The Trojans’ 23-21 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in the National Funding Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, pretty much reflected the type of season it has been for the Men of Troy.
USC came into the 2015 college football season with high expectations. That enthusiasm was met with controversy, drama and a coaching change. But the Trojans persevered through that adversity and played their way into the Pac-12 Conference title game after whooping on crosstown rival UCLA.
The National Funding Holiday Bowl was simply a mirror of the type of season the Trojans had in 2015.
The Trojans got down and looked like they were about to get counted out of the game after falling behind by double figures in the third period. By the time Wisconsin rolled its way to a 20-7 lead, USC looked dead in the water. But just as they were given up on during the regular season after a series of tough defeats, the Trojans showed their moxie and scrambled back to take the lead in the third quarter.
Despite finishing the season with an 8-6 record, that type of resiliency is what made the Trojans successful this season. But not finishing the deal or the lack of closing has also been a trait of the USC football team. That would prove to be the Trojans’ undoing against the Badgers. With so many weapons on the offensive side of the ball, USC figured to get the ball in the hands of their top playmakers to take the Badgers’ defense to task.
But for much of the game that was a tall order to request. That’s because Wisconsin (10-3) was determined not to get beat by the big play, which the Trojans can do with the best in the country. The Badgers made sure they kept the ball out of punt returner and kickoff specialist Adoree’ Jackson’s hands, limiting the former Gardena Serra High School star to just one punt return for one yard.
As far as kickoff action goes, Jackson received just one opportunity to do something, but could only come up with a 26-yard return. The Trojans’ biggest playmaker this season-JuJu Smith-Schuster-was locked up all night, catching four passes for just 65 yards and zero touchdowns.
If there was a casting theme to describe Trojans’ performance against the Badgers, it would be that USC lacked the explosive plays to exploit the Big Ten team representative that it has come to rely on all season. Sure, Smith-Schuster caught a pass for 39 yards, and Jackson was able to get his paws on a 33-yard grab, but outside of those plays, the Trojans didn’t produce the “scare moment” into Wisconsin the way they normally do to opponents.
The lethal ground game that has worked so well for USC this season sort of disappeared amid a sea of red and white jerseys, even though the Trojans did muster 100 yards in total rushing the football. Ronald Jones II (8 carries, 49 yards) and Justin Davis (12 carries, 37 yards) have had their way with opponents all season, but could not get it going against the Badgers. Ditto for quarterback Cody Kessler, who went for 18 of 32 for 221 yards and one touchdown.
This was just a game where two evenly-matched teams played to the wire because they offset one another. With that said, the Trojans still had their chances to pull off the win. After Darreus Rogers snagged in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Kessler to help put the Trojans up 21-20, Wisconsin re-took the lead with a 29-yard field goal with little more than two minutes remaining in the game.
This was just enough time for USC to make one final attempt to win the game. The Trojans actually would get two chances but couldn’t cash in. Again, USC had its opportunities to win. Where the Trojans also the lost the battle and where Wisconsin took control of the game was management of the game clock. USC had the ball for just over 22 minutes, while the Badgers owned the time with 37 minutes on their side.
Wisconsin also forced USC into converting just 5 of 14 attempts on third down. That won’t win too many ballgames. Yet, here the Trojans were still with two last opportunities to go home on the I-5 Freeway as winners. USC could get no closer than the strong fingertips of Smith-Schuster’s attempt to snatch one of Kessler’s last throws of the night out of the air for a potential-winning field goal.
Smith-Schuster came this close to making the spectacular catch. That’s the way it was all night for the Trojans. A separation here, a conversion there, and it might have all ended it differently for Clay Helton’s team. This could also be said about the Trojans’ season: some good came out of it, some adversity came their way. USC was able to handle the adversity, but just fell a little short of what they really wanted to accomplish.