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USC looks to shake off title-game loss, quiet Helton critics in Holiday Bowl

USC looks to shake off title-game loss, quiet Helton critics in Holiday Bowl
USC Coach Clay Helton reacts after an interception by Trojans cornerback Iman Marshall against UCLA on Nov. 28. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Clay Helton has not slowed down since October, when he was named USC's interim coach.

His responsibilities intensified after Athletic Director Pat Haden gave him a five-year contract before the Pac-12 Conference championship game. They ratcheted even higher after Helton fired several assistants and began searching for new ones while monitoring recruiting and preparing the Trojans for the Holiday Bowl.

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"It's a juggling act," Helton said Tuesday, "and thank God I know how to juggle."

Helton joked that he might finally take a nap after national signing day in February. He will doze more soundly if USC can finish one of its most tumultuous football seasons with a victory over Wisconsin on Wednesday night at Qualcomm Stadium.

The Trojans weathered the firing of Steve Sarkisian, embraced Helton and defeated rival UCLA for the first time in four years to win the Pac-12 South.

Now they are attempting to rebound from a title-game loss against Stanford and enter the off-season on a high note.

"It helps with recruiting," Helton said of momentum created by a bowl victory. "It helps with the way you feel going into spring ball."

A victory also might quiet critics of Haden's decision to hire Helton before the season ended. A loss to the Badgers would make Helton 0-2 as the permanent head coach heading into the 2016 opener against Alabama.

The Trojans team and coaching staff that faces the Crimson Tide in Texas will look different than the group playing and scheming against Wisconsin.

Quarterback Cody Kessler, a three-year starter, is among the USC seniors playing their final college game. Kessler said he intended to take advantage of the opportunity and "end my career the right way."

That will be a challenge against a Wisconsin program that also experienced coaching upheaval.

First-year Coach Paul Chryst was Wisconsin's offensive coordinator for seven years before leaving to become head coach at Pittsburgh after the 2011 season. Former Badgers coach Bret Bielema left for Arkansas a year later and was replaced by Gary Andersen, who spent two seasons with the Badgers before leaving for Oregon State.

That paved the way for Chryst's return to a program that is making its 14th consecutive bowl appearance.

Chryst has guided Wisconsin to a 9-3 record, but the Badgers remain something of a mystery.

They rank first nationally in scoring defense and in the top six in rushing defense and pass defense. Wisconsin's losses came against Alabama, Iowa and Northwestern, who are playing in the College Football Playoff semifinals, the Rose Bowl and the Outback Bowl, respectively.

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But Wisconsin is in the Big Ten Conference's West Division. The Badgers did not play defending national champion Ohio State, conference champion Michigan State or Michigan.

Chryst said USC was "different than anyone we've played," and, when asked, acknowledged the Trojans' overall speed.

"I don't think we have, top to bottom, seen that," he said.

In the last 25 years, USC has held a decided speed advantage against Big Ten teams in bowl games. Since losing to Michigan State in the 1990 John Hancock Bowl, the Trojans are 7-0 in bowl games against Big Ten members, including last season's Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska.

USC is playing Wisconsin for the first time since 1966 and is 6-0 against the Badgers.

This Wisconsin team is different than the ones that produced 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon. For only the third time in the last 23 seasons, the Badgers could finish the season without a 1,000-yard rusher.

But USC players still anticipate a smash-mouth style.

"They're going to be real heavy in the run game," linebacker Su'a Cravens said, "and they're not going to hide it."

Cravens is among the Trojans playing their final game. The junior has said he would make himself available for the 2016 NFL draft.

Cravens would like to go out with a victory, as would seniors who have endured multiple coaching changes and drama during their careers.

"One more game," senior defensive lineman Antwaun Woods said. "It's our job to finish it off."

Twitter: @latimesklein

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