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Holiday Bowl a nice finish for up-and-down Trojans

LOS ANGELES -- On the surface of it, the USC Trojans 41-22 decisive loss to Stanford on Saturday night in the Pac-12 Championship Game was a real downer.

Instead of Pasadena on Jan. 1, the Trojans are returning to San Diego’s Holiday Bowl to play the No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers, an intriguing matchup on Dec. 30 that figures to sell out Qualcomm Stadium.

It’s been quite a 2015 season for the Pac-12 South Division champion Trojans (8-5), especially considering what this team has had to endure. So a Holiday Bowl redo is still a welcome sight and just reward for the players who turned a negative season into a positive outcome led by newly named head coach Clay Helton.

So even though the Trojans experienced a Pac-12 Championship power outage, in the bigger picture that painful episode in Levi’s Stadium may lay the foundation for future big-game success.

Growing pains were expected with these 2015 Trojans, who had never played in a championship game of Saturday’s magnitude. You can talk all you want that experience is overrated if you have the talent, but the talent still needs to learn how to handle a pressure cooker event like the Pac-12 championship.

The learning curve for the Trojans has already begun for the 2016 season. Helton started with his own coaching staff on Sunday by firing defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, defensive line coach Chris Wilson, secondary coach Keith Heyward, and offensive line coach Bob Connelly. None will coach against Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl.

Now having dealt with his own coaching staff, Helton also knows that although his team came out short against Stanford, there are things you can’t coach and that the experience of his players participating in a championship game is invaluable.

“We're very grateful to be here in this championship game, but these guys are starting to play for each other, and that's what I'm most proud of in the whole thing,” Helton said after the title game.

“I reminded them in that locker room just to remember what this pain feels like, because it's our goal next year to be right back here next year, and I want them to remember how bad this hurts. If it doesn't hurt, something's wrong,” Helton added.

And because of that pain and the added experience of a high profile game, Helton knows the loss is really a building block for his program.

“What I see in there is a bunch of sad kids that want this (championship) more than anything,” Helton said. “We've got a bright future at SC, and it started with a bunch of seniors.”

One of those seniors was quarterback Cody Kessler, who will never have another shot at the Rose Bowl, expressed that even though he went through a lot in his career, his overall feelings for having gone through the NCAA sanctions, head coaches, and adversity was all worth it.

“Obviously I wish we would have gotten to the Rose Bowl for our last game, but, like I said, I fell in love with this school,” said a resigned Cody Kessler.

“I fell in love with this team, my teammates, this guy, all the coaches I've had. We've been through so many tough times, and I'll look back -- right now it hurts, but I'll look back some day and be proud of the person I became and the players I got to play with.”

You can believe that the returning underclassmen will see how their experienced quarterback has handled the various levels of adversity.

“I'm sorry that we didn't finish it for them (seniors),” Helton lamented as it pertains to falling short of the Rose Bowl. “But they've put us on track to be able to do some great things.”

For a number of USC players, playing for a championship - even in a loss - was an important learning curve.

“We have guys here now that know what it (Pac-12 title game) feels like,” sophomore All-Pac-12 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “For our team just being here, the environment was awesome.”

Other Trojans were forced to reach back in their personal football background to conjure up the last time they had even played in a game of this stature.

“I really learned tonight about playing in this type of (championship) atmosphere,” sophomore corner Chris Hawkins said. “I haven’t played in a championship game since 6th grade.”

So all has not been lost for the Trojans. It’s safe to say that the experience gained in the Pac-12 Championship Game will serve them well if they are fortunate enough to return to Levi’s Stadium in 2016.