Big plays doom Badgers
Consider Gary Andersen's first bowl game as Wisconsin's head coach a squandered opportunity.
UW's 34-24 loss to No. 8 South Carolina on Wednesday in the 2014 Capital One Bowl should motivate Andersen as he prepares for the future, but the defeat likely will haunt a proud senior class for days, weeks, months and beyond.
The 19th-ranked Badgers had no answer for South Carolina senior quarterback Connor Shaw, who dismantled UW's defense with his arm, feet, head and even hands as a receiver in front of a crowd of 56,629.
At the end of the day, Shaw had three passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown, and the Gamecocks (11-2) finished with 11 victories by handling a Big Ten team in a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
What did UW (9-4) have to show for its efforts? A fourth consecutive bowl defeat.
“I don't know if it's one thing,” UW senior linebacker Chris Borland said when asked what the Badgers had to do to stop their bowl skid. “We've played well in our bowl losses. I don't think today was a great performance. But it's not due to a lack of preparation or effort. We played hard. We prepared well. I'm not sure.
“I'd like to send the seniors out a better way but I can't put my finger on exactly what we need to do better other than execute generally.”
Tight end Jacob Pedersen, like Borland a fifth-year senior, offered a simple and blunt explanation.
“Players make plays, players win games,” said Pedersen, who finished with three catches for 50 yards. “You hear Coach Andersen say it all the time. There is not a more true statement in this game.
“Look at what South Carolina did. They made some big plays in the passing game against our defense and when it came down to it we weren't able to capitalize on our end.”
Shaw, who completed 22 of 25 passes (88%) for 312 yards, deftly avoided pressure and got the ball down the field.
His receivers, especially Bruce Ellington (six catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns) and Shaq Roland (six catches, 112 yards), burned UW's secondary throughout the game.
Ellington beat cornerback Sojourn Shelton for a 39-yard touchdown pass in the opening quarter; beat safety Dezmen Southward for a 31-yard reception to set up the Gamecocks' second touchdown; hit Shaw for a 9-yard score on a trick play; and beat Southward for a pair of 22-yard catches, the second a touchdown, on the Gamecocks' third scoring drive.
Roland went high between Shelton and safety Michael Caputo for a 49-yard gain to the UW 10 to set up a touchdown — a 3-yard pass by Shaw — as the Gamecocks took a 27-17 lead with 11 minutes 5 seconds left in the game.
“The receivers made contested catches and, they're fast,” Andersen said. “They can run. They run good routes. We knew all that coming in.
“But the defining moment is on contested footballs, and that's really the identification of a talented defensive back. They should all be able to run, change direction. But when that ball is in the air and it's contested, who's going to get it?
“Today South Carolina won that many times. And it's a defining moment for us and we need to understand it and get better.”
UW moved the ball well despite losing quarterback Joel Stave (9 of 13 for 80 yards and two touchdowns) late in the third quarter to a right shoulder injury and seeing backup Curt Phillips (7 of 12 for 37 yards) throw two late interceptions, both in South Carolina territory.
Melvin Gordon (25 carries, 143 yards) and James White (12-107) rushed for 250 yards.
The missed chances were too much to overcome.
UW faced third and 2 at the South Carolina 25 on its first series, but left tackle Tyler Marz moved before the snap, putting UW in a third-and-7 hole.
“We were in the friggin' red zone when I jumped,” Marz said.
After a middle screen to Pedersen gained nothing, UW ran a fake field-goal attempt. Holder Drew Meyer looked to Pedersen and tight end Brian Wozniak but both were covered. He threw to his third option, tight end Brock DeCicco, but the ball sailed high and incomplete.
“It was a predetermined play,” Meyer said. “We were trying to be aggressive.”
UW settled for a 35-yard field goal by Jack Russell for a 17-13 lead to open the third quarter after Stave was sacked on first and third downs. Russell missed right from 43 yards a few minutes later, after UW recovered a fumble by Shaw.
“I struck it well,” Russell said. “I thought I hit it right down the middle.”
With UW trailing, 27-17, Gordon was stopped for no gain at the South Carolina 26 on third and 1 and fourth and 1.
On the fourth-down play, South Carolina ran a front UW hadn't seen in that situation and linebacker Sharrod Golightly came unblocked off UW's left side.
“Nobody blocked him,” Pedersen said, noting the new look caused confusion for Wozniak and fullback Derek Watt. “Credit to their coaches. They called a look we hadn't repped in practice. You can't really blame anyone.
“They brought a different pressure at the right time and they got us.”
Shaw and his receivers got UW time and time again. The Badgers, despite giving tremendous effort, could not respond when it mattered.
“We've just got to execute down the stretch,” Stave said. “There's a lot of good players on this team but we've got to make sure when we're getting down to the end of the game and we get those opportunities to win the game we've got to execute.
“We never give up. We always fight to the end. But that only goes so far. I think for everyone that is getting a little old. We're a good team. We can play with anyone.
“But we've got to finish.”