Most Wisconsin fans seem united behind the notion that the program is trending upward behind Gary Andersen, but man, this stings. Despite moving the ball with relative ease for much of Thursday's first three quarters at the Capital One Bowl, the Badgers dropped their fourth straight bowl game.
So, what's the deal?
"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.
It's easy to buy into Borland's quote there, because after all Wisconsin has been in winning position in each of those four bowl losses. The first, the 2011 Rose Bowl, was a two-point affair that came down to a missed two-point conversion. Against Oregon the following year, Russell Wilson had the Badgers in striking distance of overcoming that late Jared Abbrederis fumble in a 45-38 defeat. The 2013 Rose Bowl was a six-point loss that probably unfairly fell into the lap of Curt Phillips (more on that below).
Wednesday, there were certainly factors of varying significance that decided the outcome. The Connor Shaw-Bruce Ellington tandem was lethal, especially considering the apparent difficulties UW's defensive backs had in turning around to defend the football. Shaw was on point from start to finish, going 22-of-25 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. His 12.5 yards per attempt were especially ridiculous, though, and that figure makes you wonder if Joel Stave and Phillips ever really had a chance.
Nevertheless, the 10-point loss seemed closer than that considering a known weakness in the secondary was actually bailed out by another known weakness in the kick return game. Kenzel Doe's 91-yard kickoff return touchdown brought the Badgers to within 27-24 with 10-plus minutes remaining, and that came immediately after Shaw's third touchdown pass had UW fans proclaiming the game over. That sentiment was largely because Shaw seemed so unstoppable at that point -- SC's eight drives had culminated in four touchdowns to just two punts, a fumble and the end of the first half.
Thus, the "we need just one break" feeling was pervasive following Doe's return. Sure, it was tempered somewhat by Stave's injury, and Phillips' passing arm has been a question mark ever since he failed to win the starting job this fall. But with one stop, he'd at least have a chance to pull out the win.
Instead came a nine-play, 88-yard drive from the Gamecocks. Shaw & co. never faced a third down, thanks in large part to a 33-yard strike to Shaq Roland. The play was the latest in a seemingly neverending string of ridiculous catches by SC receivers, primarily Ellington. Six plays later, Shaw was in the end zone.
So the big plays given up were certainly critical. After all, Wisconsin countered with just 117 passing yards between its two quarterbacks.
"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."
That's one take, the lack of firepower to counteract South Carolina's. But couldn't the Melvin Gordon & James White combo be enough? Shouldn't it be? The duo averaged 6.8 yards per carry, spearheaded by Gordon's workhorse effort (25 carries for 143 yards) and White's normal explosiveness (12 carries for 107 yards).
But it still felt as though they weren't featured enough. Twenty-five passing attempts (not counting Drew Meyer's on the first-quarter fake field goal) seemed about five or six too many, as if Andy Ludwig felt compelled to keep the offense varied even though Gordon and White looked irrepressible. Considering the first half largely a wash since the Badgers finished with a one-point lead despite Stave's freak interception -- yes, you consider that an unlucky bounce -- there were several instances of puzzling departures from the ground game.
To begin the second half, Wisconsin opened with runs of 5, 14 and 32 yards. They brought the Badgers to the Gamecocks' 13-yard line. Next? Stave lost 2 yards, Gordon gained 5 and Stave was sacked for a loss of 7 on 3rd-and-7. Given the preceding results, I'd feel entirely comfortable rushing Gordon or White with 7 yards to gain, knowing a field goal was all you had to lose anyway.
Next drive, following Shaw's lost fumble with 11:19 left in the third? Gordon rushed 4 yards to South Carolina's 27 before penalties on both teams resulted in a 2nd-and-11 from SC's 32. Stave hit Abbrederis for 7, White gained 1 and Wisconsin had a 4th-and-3 from South Carolina's 24. Leading only 17-13 and knowing full well Shaw's awaiting a shot at redemption for the fumble, why not force the issue with another rush? The staff must've felt fairly comfortable to let Russell attempt the 42-yarder rather than pound Gordon up the middle or send White off-tackle.
Perhaps that's all just hindsight taking over, as the game changed once Stave exited and Phillips entered. Even with Doe's return, it seemed unlikely that Phillips could muster enough offense to compensate for whatever South Carolina put on the board. The Wisconsin State Journal's recap pegs the loss on injuries and the lack of execution, and that might be the most comfortable explanation.
-- What's your final takeaway from this season? There's a poll below at your disposal. Mine, for what it's worth, is generally positive: In the first year with a new staff, Wisconsin managed three* (asterisk for kicks, why not?) very close losses and still reached a New Year's Day bowl. Considering the recruiting momentum the program's seized -- the next few weeks will be real interesting -- and everything Andersen and his staff showed us this year, I don't think you can argue things are trending upward.
-- More on Phillips, as promised: I think we should be sending this guy out with some praise. He faced a remarkably difficult path throughout his six years in Madison, but the work he did as a mentor for the younger quarterbacks and in spot duty should not be overlooked. Tom Mulhern talked with him after the game:
Phillips claimed he didn't feel rusty, but he looked tentative, completing 7 of 12 passes for 37 yards. His longest completion went for 14 yards and he threw two costly interceptions.
He seemed to be aiming his throws, rather than cutting loose, which might have been due to the lack of snaps he gets in practice.
"It's not that bad," Phillips said. "My head was in it. I've been paying attention. Obviously, you don't get the reps, not being a starter, but that's your job is to be ready in case something happens.
"I hate that it happened like that for (Stave). I thought he was playing a heck of a game."
-- If you'd like a close-up view of most of Wisconsin's highlights on the day, the UWBadgers.com highlight package is solid as always.
-- Andersen's full post-game press conference, if you'd like.
-- Tom Oates has grades. Nobody gets more than a C+ and the only ones that do are special teams, alright!
-- Jesse Temple goes a bit deeper with a season-ending report card -- already! I think most of his grades (he goes by phases of the game) are agreeable, though I wonder what people will say about the B-minus grade for the passing offense.