Holiday Bowl? Look out for the wild, the crazy and the high-scoring affair. Wednesday nightâ€™s battle between the Wisconsin Badgers and USC Trojans had two-thirds of the usual recipe, as the Badgers came away with a 23-21 victory in a wild 4th quarter battle to the end.
This one played in to the narrative of the game coming in â€” asÂ the 2015 Holiday Bowl was billed as USCâ€™s high-powered offense against Wisconsinâ€™s stingy defense. It was a fight to the end between the two, but the Badgers defense came up with the win after Rafael Gaglianone knocked home a 29-yard field goal for the 23-21 lead late in the 4th quarter.
Following that moment, the Badgers D came up with the only turnover of the game and clinched a 23-21 victory for the Wisconsin Badgers â€” just when it needed it most too.
With Wisconsin up 23-21 and needing a defensive stop to clinch the victory, Jack Cichy, who missed the 1st half of the game thanks to targeting, came up with the biggest play of the game.
After harassing USC quarterback Cody Kessler for most of the second half (three sacks in the 2nd half), Cichy got a piece of a Kessler pass from behind and Sojourn Shelton came up with the only turnover of the game.
Wisconsinâ€™s defense bent at times, broke on just one big drive, but recovered and kept the Trojans in check when it mattered most.
Kessler, coming in averaging 255 yards per game, was held to 221 yards on 18 of 32 passing for one touchdown and that critical interception.
His counterpart, senior Joel Stave, earned the Badgers QB record for wins with his 31st victory. However, he did it in perhaps the most Joel Stave way ever â€” by putting the team on his back when they needed it most and managing to do it in ugly ways as well.
Stave finished the game with 217 yards on 18 of 27 passing and one touchdown, but it was an inadvertent cleat to the face on a critical drive late in the 4th quarter that summed up Staveâ€™s career. It was something freaky and strange and it led to Stave being on the field with a bunch of tape all over his nose and a swab stuck in his nose.
Joel Freaking Stave, winningest QB in Wisconsin history. Reviled by many. Ends career w/ bloody nose and bowl win. I want to write his bio
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) December 31, 2015
He managed to engineer a 7-play, 42-yard drive that was capped off by Gaglianoneâ€™s 29-yard game winning field goal.
For a senior that saw it all and did it al in his career, there was no other way to go out than on top in dramatic fashion.
Kessler padded the stat sheet after the Badgers offense failed to gain a first down following its interception, but in the end it was pressure coming from Vince Biegel and a secondary that forced Kessler to pass short of the sticks on fourth down that sealed the win in classic 2015 Wisconsin Badgers style.
#USC #Trojans final play. Cody Kessler throws short on 4th & 10â€¦.for some reason. pic.twitter.com/S9JfchnYhf
— The Sports Daily (@SportsDailyBlog) December 31, 2015
It wasnâ€™t always pretty, but it all fit together for another 10-win season in the end.
Stave led Wisconsinâ€™s passing game to an impressive first half, outdueling Kessler and the high-powered passing game of USC. Stave threw for 139 yards on 11 of 18 passing, while Wisconsinâ€™s defense held Kessler down for 72 yards on 7 of 13 passing in the first half (33 of that one play).
Staveâ€™s favorite target all season long, Alex Erickson, did it again in the first half, putting up all five of his receptions for 54 yards to lead all receivers in the half.
However, it was the return of junior running back Corey Clement that got the Badgers offense in the end zone. Clement scored on a powerful run that ended with him stiff-arming a USC defender and breaking the plane just before going down on his elbow.
It was 10-0 Badgers at that point, but USC found a way to take advantage of Wisconsinâ€™s wish to kick away from the dangerous Adoreeâ€™ Jackson. With Jack Russell kicking short, USC got a good return and started at the 45-yard line.
Nine plays and 55 yards later it was 10-7 Wisconsin leading thanks to an impressive 4th and 4 catch and run by Jackson for the Trojans. He took it 33 yards, down to the Badgersâ€™ 2-yard line, but it took another four plays for USC to punch it in and make it a one-possession game.
Wisconsinâ€™s offense was left with 86 yards to go and just 4:20 to go in the second quarter. In typical late first half play, quarterback Joel Stave went to work when needed and the run game came along for the ride. It resulted in big chunk plays for the Badgers offense.
Stave hit Erickson for a 14-yard catch on 2nd and 7, fullback Derek Watt busted loose for a career-high 19-yard run and Clement had key runs en route to getting inside the USC 15-yard line.
However, a promising drive turned in to a 28-yard field goal instead of a touchdown, and the Badgers went in to the half up 13-7.
It was a bit of old-school Badgers football, as Wisconsin dominated possession against a Trojans team looking to do the same under new head coach Clay Helton. UW ran 39 plays to the Trojansâ€™ 24 and held a 20:11 to 9:49 advantage in time of possession in the first stanza.
With both teams trying to achieve the same things, that kind of advantage would go a long way.
Not much changed as USC got the ball to start the second half and immediately went 3-and-out as the Badgers defense turned up the pressure.
Wisconsin took advantage of that missed opening drive and pounded its way to the end zone in a 12-play, 64-yard drive that ended with 6:15 off the clock and Joel Stave connecting with Traylor for a 4-yard touchdown pass and the 20-7 lead.
If there was one thing the UW defense was worried about, it was wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. He was held largely in check for the first half, but his first opportunity of the second half was a big one. Kessler hit him deep on the sideline for a 39-yard play to the UW 16-yard line on the first play of the drive following Wisconsinâ€™s score.
On 3rd and 6, USC dialed up a trick play for wide receiver Jalen Green. Instead of choosing the pass option, the wide receiver chose to pull it down and took off to the opposite side for a 6-yard gain and a 1st down on 3rd and 4 deep in UW territory.
USC punched the ball in on the next play and made it 20-14 with less than 6 minutes to play in the 3rd quarter.
Just as the momentum felt like it was swinging completely in the favor of USC following its touchdown and 3-and-out on defense, the Badgers got it all back on three straight plays.
All three of them came from the returning Jack Cichy, who sat out the first half after being called for targeting in the second half of the win over Minnesota. He went back-to-back-to-back on three plays for sacks and immediately drove USCâ€™s quarterback back for 30 yards of losses on those three sacks.
Jack Cichy led the #Badgers in tackles (9), sacks (3) and TFLs (3) … and only played a half of football. #animal
— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) December 31, 2015
Wisconsinâ€™s offense couldnâ€™t take advantage of it either, going 3-and-out for the second straight offensive drive.
That started a downhill spiral for both sides of the ball, as Wisconsinâ€™s defense began to give up big plays en mass and its offense simply couldnâ€™t match the quick strike ability of the Trojans when needed.
USC matched the intensity of the Badgersâ€™ last scoring effort with an impressive 12-play, 82-yard scoring drive to start the 4th quarter, giving USC its first lead of the game at 21-20.
The drive was kept alive by Kesslerâ€™s improvisational skills and ability to make the big play, as USC hit three of the 12 plays for 10-plus yards. No play was bigger than a crucial 3rd and 4 that turned in to a wide open
Wisconsin took that punch and had a little something to punch back at the Trojans. It came in the form of quarterback turned safety, Tanner McEvoy. The senior came in and ripped off a nice run on his first play, then appeared to save UWâ€™s drive with a run off the edge..only he broke it for much, much more and what was clearly going to be a touchdown.
Except the official on the sideline believed this was McEvoy going out of bounds:
— J.A. Adande (@jadande) December 31, 2015
The official blew his whistle and the play ruled dead at that point, despite McEvoy having a 10-yard head start on everyone inside the 10-yard line and a 26-21 sure lead for the Badgers in the final stanza of the game.
Wisconsin overcame that mistake and some self-inflicted drives that stalled out, coming up huge just at the right moment.
It ended with a win thanks to the formula that got it to the 9-3 record it held going in to the game â€” playing stingy on defense and getting just enough out of the offense to take home the win.
While it wasnâ€™t high scoring or always pretty, going out a victory for the second straight season is a huge win for this program.
Doing it over another Top 25 opponent near its own backyard? That will be a priceless moment for the seniors to say the least.