Holiday Bowl: USC vs Louisville Game Preview

NCAA

LA Times

Game Details

Matchup: USC Trojans (Pac-12) vs No. 15 Louisville Cardinals (ACC)

Date: Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Time: 5:00 pm PT

Channel: Fox

Sponsor: DirecTV

Betting Line: Louisville -7.5, O/U 57.5 (BetMGM Sportsbook)

Location: Petco Park (San Diego, CA)

Records: USC 7-5 (5-4), Louisville 10-3 (7-1)

The 44th Holiday Bowl returns to Petco Park and features the first-ever meeting between the University of Southern California Trojans and Louisville Cardinals.

The game will be followed by the 101.5 KGB Sky Show for the second consecutive year. 

The Trojans, under head coach Lincoln Riley, began the season with national championship aspirations behind QB Caleb Williams, the defending Heisman winner. A 6-0 start fueled those aspirations before the team lost five of its last six games of the season and fell outside the Top 25. This bowl game will be their final game as a member of the Pac-12 Conference. 

The Trojans have the tenth-best bowl-winning percentage (63%) among schools that have made at least ten appearances. Their 34 victories are third-most behind only Alabama (44) and Georgia (35).

The Cardinals, under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm, made it to the ACC Championship Game but fell to undefeated Florida State, 16-6, in the title game. They enter the bowl game ranked 15th in the CFP and USA Today Coaches Polls and 16th in the AP Poll. The game marks Louisville’s 26th bowl appearance. With a victory, UofL will break the .500 mark for its overall postseason record (12-12-1).  

The lone common opponent both teams faced this year was Notre Dame. The Cardinals defeated the Fighting Irish 33-20, while the Trojans fell 48-20. 

When USC has the ball: Advantage – USC

Offense

The Trojans average 41.7 ppg (4th), 329.8 passing ypg (5th), 139.9 rushing ypg (91st) and 469.7 total ypg (11th).

At full strength, the Trojans have arguably the best offense in college football. But they will be without their three best players for this game. QB Caleb Williams has elected not to play as he prepares to enter the NFL Draft.

Holiday Bowl

Redshirt sophomore QB Miller Moss will make his first collegiate start in his place. In limited action, Moss has completed 43 of 59 passes for 542 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for two scores.

RB Marshawn Lloyd led the team with 820 rushing yards (7.1 ypc) and nine touchdowns but he will also sit out the game. The only other player with more than 142 rushing yards was Austin Jones, who ran for 417 and seven scores.

WR Tahj Washington (52 rec, 963 yds, 6 TDs) and Brenden Rice (45 rec, 791 yds, 12 TDs) were quite the dynamic duo in the passing game. Rice, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, declared for the NFL Draft and will not play in the game. The game could be a breakout opportunity for true freshman Zachariah Branch, who has excelled in the return game this year but has only shown flashes in the passing game. 

Defense

The Cardinals allow 19.7 ppg (20th), 205.4 passing ypg (35th), 101.9 rushing ypg (12th) and 307.3 total ypg (14th).

Two defensive players earned All-ACC honors: DL Ashton Gillotte (First Team) and S Devin Neal (Third Team). 

Gillotte’s 11 sacks led the team, the most by a Cardinal since Devonte Fields had 11 in 2015. Gillotte, who earned All-American honors by The Athletic and Sports Illustrated, also forced three fumbles. 

Neal collected four interceptions, one of seven players with picks this season. DBs Cam’Ron Kelly and Quincy Riley added two each. 

LB TJ Quinn leads the team with 87 tackles. 

Louisville ranks first in red zone defense (69%) and sixth in 3rd down conversion defense (28.1%).

When Louisville has the ball: Advantage – Louisville

Offense

The Cardinals average 30.9 ppg (45th), 244 passing ypg (53rd), 175.3 rushing ypg (46th) and 419.3 total ypg (44th).

The Cardinals are led by QB Jack Plummer. The signal caller, who had prior stops at Cal and Purdue, completed 235 of 370 passes for 3,063 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Like the Trojans, the Cardinals will be missing their two biggest offensive weapons in this game in RB Jawhar Jordan and WR Jamari Thrash, who both declared for the NFL Draft. 

Jordan, the team’s leading rusher and First Team All-ACC selection, rushed for 1,128 rushing yards on 181 carries and 13 TDs. Isaac Guerendo is the next leading rusher with 649 yards. The Wisconsin transfer has peaked lately, rushing for 397 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 8.1 yards per carry in the last five games of the regular season. 

Credit: AP Photo

Thrash, the team’s leading receiver and Second Team All-ACC selection caught 63 passes for 858 yards and 6 TDs. Nine other players caught touchdowns this year and will be needed to pick up the slack for Thrash’s absence. 

Senior C Bryan Hudson, who will play, also received First Team All-ACC honors for his exceptional play manning the offensive line and helping Louisville win all nine of its games when rushing for at least 160 yards in a game this season. For his efforts, Hudson won the 2023 Jacobs Blocking Trophy, the annual award given to the most outstanding blocker in the ACC, voted by the league’s head coaches and defensive coordinators. 

Defense

The Trojans allow 34.9 ppg (120th), 255.2 passing ypg (115th), 183.7 rushing ypg (114th) and 438.8 total ypg (120th).

The Trojans’ defense was one of the most-talked-about units in college football this year. Despite the offensive firepower, the team was constantly in a high-scoring battle week in and week out. Finally, on November 5, Riley fired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and promoted DL coach Shaun Nua and ILB coach Brian Odom as interim co-DCs for the rest of the season. Since the end of the season, Riley poached D’Anton Lynn from rival UCLA to be the permanent DC for the Trojans. Lynn will serve as the DC and call plays for the bowl game.  

Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State transfer) led the team with 77 tackles and seven TFLs. Solomon Byrd and Jamil Muhammad led the way with six sacks each, while Byrd also had a team-high four forced fumbles. 

No player had more than two interceptions for a defense that only forced 14 turnovers in 12 games. Christian Roland-Wallace, one of two players with two interceptions, also added nine pass breakups. 

CB Domani Jackson is one of several defensive players who entered the transfer portal at the conclusion of the regular season and will not play. 

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Special Teams: Advantage – USC

USC

The Trojans rank 8th (66.4) in ESPN’s Special Teams Efficiency metric. Their strength is based on true freshman Zachariah Branch’s return abilities, finishing first in the nation in punt returns (20.6) and second in the nation in total punt and kickoff return yards (751). He returned a punt and kickoff each for touchdowns on his way to being named First Team All-American as a returner by the Sporting News, USA Today, and PFF. PK Denis Lynch made 10 of 13 field goals with a long of 53. P Eddie Czaplicki averaged 43.6 ypp with a long of 57. 

Louisville

The Cardinals rank 93rd (45.1) in ESPN’s Special Teams Efficiency metric. PK Brock Travelstead made 17 of 24 field goals with a long of 53. P Brady Hodges averaged 43.2 ypp with a long of 51 after taking over as the punter halfway through the season. Kevin Coleman averaged 4.5 yards on punt returns and three different kickoff returners had a return of at least 40 yards. 

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