Wisconsin blew a 13-point second-half lead and needed to come back from a late deficit, but in the end, the Badgers emerged victorious in the Holiday Bowl.
Ahead, 20-7, in the third quarter, Wisconsin allowed USC to reach the end zone twice in a three-drive span, the Trojans taking a 21-20 lead with about 10 minutes to play. But Badgers kicker Rafael Gaglianone booted a 29-yard field goal with two and a half minutes left to give Wisconsin its second consecutive bowl win, this one by a score of 23-21 on Wednesday night in San Diego.
Wisconsin's defense — which entered the game with the country's No. 1 scoring defense, allowing just 13.1 points per game — did a generally great job bottling up USC, allowing just 286 total yards of offense. Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy, who didn't even play in the first half while serving a suspension for a targeting ejection in the regular-season finale, starred in the second half, at one point sacking USC quarterback Cody Kessler on three straight plays and later forcing a Kessler interception. The Trojans amassed just 65 rushing yards on the night.
That Wisconsin defense looked tremendous early on, and the first quarter closed without any points on the scoreboard. But Badgers quarterback Joel Stave led three straight scoring drives in the second quarter. First, the Badgers capitalized on solid field position, driving to the Trojans’ 10-yard line before settling for a Gaglianone field goal — a drive highlighted by a sensational one-handed catch by wide receiver Robert Wheelwright. Then Wisconsin went 74 yards in six plays, Stave throwing for 56 yards on the drive, including a 26-yard gainer to Austin Traylor that set up Corey Clement’s six-yard touchdown run. And the Badgers kicked another field goal in the first half’s final minute, capping a drive highlighted by Derek Watt’s 19-yard rush.
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The Badgers made it four straight drives ending in points in the third quarter, going 64 yards in 12 plays, Clement, Watt and Dare Ogunbowale gaining 39 yards on the ground before Stave’s touchdown pass to Traylor from four yards out to make it 20-7.
That score seemed to show Wisconsin dominating, but USC answered in impressive fashion. The Trojans went 55 yards in just five plays and just over two minutes, Kessler making a perfect pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster for a huge 39-yard gain. Four plays later, Justin Davis was into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game to again make the Wisconsin advantage just six points.
After a few strong series by both defenses — including those stunning three consecutive sacks by Cichy — USC opened the fourth quarter with a 12-play, 82-yard touchdown drive, featuring a 25-yard pass from Kessler to Tyler Petite and a big third-down conversion from Kessler to Smith-Schuster to set up a touchdown pass from Kessler to Darreus Rogers, the score that put the Trojans ahead, 21-20.
Wisconsin’s offense went through chaos on the ensuing possession. Tanner McEvoy streaked down the sideline and appeared gone for a score, but the officials ruled that McEvoy stepped out of bounds, despite replay seeming to show some distance between his foot and the sideline. Shortly thereafter, Stave took a shoe to the face, which drew blood, and had to come out of the game. Backup quarterback Bart Houston entered and had a snap rolled to him by the center before his third-down throw was way off and the Badgers were forced to punt.
Wisconsin’s defense did a tremendous job getting the ball right back, though, and Stave re-entered, throwing a pair of darts for back-to-back 17-yard gains to get the Badgers in the red zone. A few plays later, Gaglianone put Wisconsin back on top with the 29-yard field goal, making it 23-21 with two and a half minutes to play.
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That defense again stood tall, with Cichy striking again, getting into the backfield on the drive's third play and hitting Kessler’s arm as he threw, forcing an errant throw that was intercepted by Sojourn Shelton. The Trojans did get the ball back but couldn't get into field-goal range as time ran out.
The Badgers finished with nearly 400 yards of offense. Stave completed 16 of his 25 passing attempts for 183 yards and a touchdown in his final game at Wisconsin. Clement led the Badgers with 66 rushing yards on 19 carries, though he missed most of the second half after suffering an injury ahead of Wisconsin's final touchdown. Ogunbowale rushed for 50 yards on 13 carries.
Despite playing just half the game, Cichy finished as the Badgers' leading tackler, recording nine stops, including three tackles for loss, the three sacks.
The win rounded out the Badgers' season at 10-3. The bowl victory was the program's second straight after a win in last year's Outback Bowl. It was also the first postseason win for Paul Chryst as head coach of the Badgers.