ORLANDO, Fla. — The University of Wisconsin football team did everything it could to send its seniors out on a high note against South Carolina on Wednesday in the Capital One Bowl.
But in the end, it was more disappointment for a group of seniors that was on the verge of doing great things, but couldn’t quite close the deal.
The 19th-ranked Badgers lost a bowl game for the fourth straight year and sixth time in seven years, falling to No. 8 South Carolina 34-24 in front of 56,629 fans at Citrus Bowl Stadium.
“A disappointing end to the season,” UW senior defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. “We came so close. You could feel the momentum shift almost every play.”
The Badgers (9-4) pulled out all of the stops trying to put an end to the bowl skid. They used a fake field goal that didn’t work on their first possession and had aggressive game plans on both sides of the ball.
“We were going to be aggressive all day long,” UW coach Gary Andersen said.
It wasn’t enough to counter another talented quarterback who carved up the Badgers’ defense. Senior Connor Shaw was nearly flawless, completing 22 of 25 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns.
Shaw also ran for a score on a 1-yard sneak and caught a 9-yard pass for a score off a reverse, accounting for five touchdowns overall.
The touchdown catch in the second quarter started as a jet sweep to the left by wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, who handed the ball to receiver Bruce Ellington going the other way. Ellington lofted the pass to a wide-open Shaw in the end zone.
“We’ve had that play in for about three years, but we don’t put it in every game,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “But this week, we were at breakfast today and I told Connor we were going to throw the one back to (him).”
But this game was not about the gadget plays that teams frequently pull out for bowl games. The Badgers fought valiantly, as they always do, and were in a position in the third quarter to take control. But they failed to make the crucial plays that have gone against these seniors so many times, leaving them searching for answers once again.
“I don’t know if it’s one thing,” senior linebacker Chris Borland said. “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’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.”
If Borland couldn’t pinpoint the reasons, it wasn’t hard to pick out the pivotal sequence.
UW led 17-13 in the third quarter when linebacker Derek Landisch forced a Shaw fumble. The ball appeared headed out of bounds, but safety Tanner McEvoy made a great play by flipping it back toward the field, where linebacker Ethan Armstrong recovered it at the South Carolina 31-yard line.
The Badgers failed to capitalize when they went to the Wildcat formation for the second time in the game — something they had not shown for weeks. Running back James White took a direct snap and lost 1 yard over left tackle. Jack Russell, who made 35-yard field goal on the opening drive of the second half, was wide right from 42 this time.
“Obviously, after a turnover, that’s one of our goals on offense,” McEvoy said of getting points in that situation. “It didn’t roll our way, but that doesn’t mean if we scored on that possession we would have won the game. There were a lot of things we could have done differently.”
The Gamecocks (11-2) took a 20-17 lead on the next series with a 75-yard drive. It included a fabulous catch by Ellington against senior safety Dezmen Southward on fourth-and-7. Ellington, who led South Carolina with six catches for 140 yards and two TDs, reached back with his left hand and snared the pass for a 22-yard gain.
Two plays later, Ellington beat Southward again for 22 yards and the touchdown.
“Players make plays, players win games,” Southward said. “A lot of times, we were all over those guys and they just went up and got it.”
The Badgers were still in decent shape, thanks mostly to their running game. Sophomore Melvin Gordon (143 yards) and White (107) combined for 250 rushing yards to break the all-time single-season FBS rushing record for a duo with 3,053 yards.
But on the next possession, Gordon was stopped for no gain on third-and-1, then couldn’t convert on fourth-and-inches from the South Carolina 26 when Sharrod Golightly came clean off the left edge and made the stop.
“We’re kind of upset with ourselves,” Gordon said. “When you get plays like that and you’re right there, you’ve got to make something out of those points (in the game) and we didn’t.”
After Gordon was stopped on fourth down, UW’s defense gave up yet another big play when Shaw hit Shaq Roland for a 49-yard gain against the coverage of cornerback back Sojourn Shelton and safety Mike Caputo.
Caputo appeared in perfect position to make a play but didn’t, leading to a 3-yard touchdown pass from Shaw to Jerell Adams and a 27-17 lead.
“I completely put that on me,” Caputo said. “I knew what they were running. I turned toward him. I had that deep pass. Sojourn was supposed to be where he was at. I just didn’t make a play.”
Junior Kenzel Doe got the Badgers back into the game with a 91-yard kickoff return, using a stiff-arm on Kane Whitehurst, who had a perfect angle, to go the last 30 yards and cut UW’s deficit to 27-24.
But UW quarterback Joel Stave was knocked out of the game after sustaining an injury to his right shoulder on a 5-yard scramble around right end. Stave didn’t slide on the play and was nailed by cornerback Victor Hampton.
Stave completed 9 of 13 passes for only 80 yards, with two TDs. He had a fluke interception in the first quarter when he tried to throw a screen pass into the ground and the ball bounced off the leg of right tackle Rob Havenstein and into the hands of linebacker Skai Moore. That led to the Gamecocks’ first touchdown, a 39-yard pass to Ellington on the next play.
UW sixth-year quarterback Curt Phillips, who had attempted only two passes and played in two games all season, was not sharp. He completed 7 of 12 passes for 37 yards and two interceptions.
Phillips had tight end Jacob Pedersen open in the end zone and underthrew him, with Moore getting his second interception to help seal the loss with 3 minutes, 14 seconds left.
Andersen said the loss didn’t change his feelings about the seniors, saying, “I’ll forever be indebted to those kids.”
But it was a tough way to end Andersen’s first season, which once brimmed with high expectations but ended with two straight losses.
“We can do a better job of coaching them and we’ve got to ... have some kids make some special plays, and special moments,” Andersen said. “They won nine games. They played their tails off every single week. The University of Wisconsin is unbelievably important to them. Again, I’m proud of them.”