ORLANDO, Fla. - The No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers were a two-point favorite over No. 9 South Carolina heading into the 2014 Capital One Bowl, and through two and a half quarters of play it looked like they would prove odds makers right.
But the Badgers wasted an opportunity to extend their lead in the third quarter, and they paid for it with their fourth-straight bowl game loss. South Carolina was able to ice away a 34-24 win, giving the Gamecocks three consecutive 11-win seasons under head coach Steve Spurrier. The loss dropped the Badgers to 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten) in Gary Andersen's first season at the helm.
James White and Melvin Gordon had plenty of room to run against the Gamecocks through two quarters, and the Badgers took a 14-13 lead over the Gamecocks into halftime. But the tide turned early in the third quarter after Wisconsin kicker Jack Russell missed a 42-yard field goal after the Badgers recovered a fumble by South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. The Gamecocks scored 14 unanswered points to re-take the lead after that empty possession, and the Badgers never reclaimed the lead.
The Badgers had several chances to stop South Carolina's offense in the second half, but they weren't able to get the Gamecocks off the field. And just like in their 31-24 loss to Penn State on senior day, Wisconsin's secondary struggled to stop deep passing plays. Shaw completed six passes of at least 20 yards in the game, with four coming in the second half. The quarterback won the game's MVP award after throwing three touchdowns and completing 22-of-25 passes for 312 yards, and senior linebacker Chris Borland said his team just didn't execute well enough to win the game.
"We played hard enough to win but didn't play well enough, gave up some deep balls and at times got beat by the runs," Borland said after his final game with the Badgers. "We played well but at the end of the day, it was execution. It was a lot of different things. It wasn't one thing over and over again. It's simple. You've got to play better to win than we did today."
The Badgers also lost starting quarterback Joel Stave to a shoulder injury late in the third quarter, hampering an already shaking passing game. Stave took a big hit to his throwing shoulder from South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton, and Stave said that he couldn't lift his arm over his head and didn't have much feeling in his arm either.
Senior quarterback Curt Phillips relieved Stave, but he completed just 7-of-12 passes for 37 yards and was picked off twice in the fourth quarter. South Carolina was also able force a turnover on downs after the Badgers could convert on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 after Phillips came in for Stave. Andersen said his team's offense didn't change after Stave's injury, but it was easy to see that the Badgers didn't have the same vertical passing threat with Phillips under center.
"Football becomes really hard when you get yourself into a position where you can't throw it on offense and you can't cover them on defense," Andersen said.
The Badgers had other chances to get back into the game even after Stave's injury, including a 91-yard kick return for a touchdown by wide receiver Kenzel Doe and another fumble by South Carolina that the Badgers recovered at the Gamecocks' 48-yard line. But in the end the Badgers couldn't dig out of the two score deficit that they surrendered to the Gamecocks in the third quarter.
"If we make something out of [that possession] it's a different ballgame," Gordon said of Wisconsin's empty drive in the third quarter. "When things like that happen in big games you've got to make something happen. You've got to."
They had to, they didn't, and now the Badgers will have to wait until the 2014 season to see if they can get over the hump and beat a top-tier opponent. The Badgers came close to being a "great" team in Andersen's first season, but ultimately too many chances to prove it slipped through their fingers.
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