Wisconsin's top-rated defense to get ultimate test vs. Cody Kessler, USC
Who: Wisconsin vs. USC
What: Holiday Bowl
When: Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Spread: USC -3
Matchup to watch: Cody Kessler vs. Wisconsin LBs
The Wisconsin linebackers were one of the top units in the country in the regular season. Joe Schobert racked up the All-America accolades, but this unit was sixth in the country against the pass because of its depth at linebacker. Vince Biegel had a monster year of his own with 14 tackles for loss and T.J. Edwards was the team’s leading tackler. T.J. Watt emerged as a pass-rusher in place of the injured Chris Orr down the stretch, which is exactly what the Badgers will need more of against Kessler. He likes to go through his progressions and get the ball downfield. Despite its prolific passing attack, the Trojans allowed 2.7 sacks per game. That’s good news for Schobert. When he’s able to get into the backfield, the Badgers look every bit like one of the nation’s best units.
Thing I’m excited to see: Corey Clement play football
All we’ve been hearing about with the Wisconsin tailback the last month-and-a-half is off-the-field issues. Is he fully healthy from his sports hernia surgery? What’s going on with that assault case? Will he declare for the NFL draft? All of these questions surrounded Clement, but on Wednesday, they should be in the past. He’s expected to play, which is news in itself. He was still dealing with a hand injury/suspension for his role in the disorderly conduct case at the end of the regular season. Assuming there aren’t any setbacks, we should get a preview of 2016. Clement’s workload likely won’t be at the level it’ll be at next year, but we should finally get to see what the junior can do as a feature back in a headliner game. It only took until late December.
Number to remember: 24
No offense has produced more than 24 points against Wisconsin since Alabama did in the season opener. On that day, the Badgers lost Michael Caputo on the first series. When healthy, the Badgers have been the top-rated defense in the country. Some, however, question that because the rest of their non-conference slate was non-Power Five teams and their conference schedule didn’t force them to play a high-powered offense. That won’t be the case against USC. Kessler has weapons galore. JuJu Smith-Schuster had six 100-yard receiving games this season while tailbacks Ronald Jones and Justin Davis are both plenty capable of breaking off big chunks of yardage. And if the Badgers don’t account for Adoree Jackson, he can make them pay. Just ask Nebraska about that.
Prediction: USC 31, Wisconsin 27
For the record, I do think the Badger defense is one of the best in the country. Any team that has a guy like Schobert running around is going to have success. But I think USC’s balance will present a challenge. The Badgers are too disciplined to let the Trojans run away with anything. Wisconsin is going to try to keep in on the ground. It could be a mix of Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal. But at some point, this game is going to come down to Joel Stave keeping pace with Kessler. I think the latter has the edge, and ultimately, that proves to be the difference.