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January 1, 2014

Gamecocks finish with a flourish



ORLANDO, Fla. - Wisconsin did what it usually does best, chewing up chunks of yardage running the football.

South Carolina, though, did what it does even better.

The Gamecocks relied on the right arm and feet of senior quarterback Connor Shaw, talented wide receivers Bruce Ellington and Shaq Roland (combined 12 receptions for 252 yards) and a quick, opportunistic defense that forced four costly turnovers in an exciting 34-24 victory over Wisconsin in the 68th annual Capital One Bowl Wednesday afternoon at overcast Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in front of a divided crowd of 56,629 fans.

With the victory, USC closed out a season with six straight wins for the first time in school history and matched the school record for most victories in a season with 11, a mark initially set two years ago in the Capital One Bowl and equaled last season with the thrilling Outback Bowl win over Michigan.

The streak, of course, includes the fifth straight win over Palmetto State rival Clemson.

"These two Capital One Bowls in a row are pretty nice, but that state championship ain't bad either!" USC head coach Steve Spurrier yelled to the appreciative Gamecock crowd during the cheerful trophy presentation after the game.

USC has now won seven of its past 11 bowl games and improved to 33-6 over the past three seasons with its third straight New Year's Day bowl win over a Big Ten opponent.

Shaw, who finished his career with an exceptional 27-5 record, completed 22-of-25 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns, a pair to Ellington (one of the best games of his career) and one to tight end Jerell Adams. Shaw (47 yards) and Mike Davis (49 yards) combined for 96 yards on the ground, accounting for most of USC's 117 rushing yards.

The ending was fit for a Hollywood script.

"He was sensational," Spurrier said afterwards of Shaw. "Bruce Ellington made some catches, Shaq Roland made some big ones (catches), Mike (Davis) made some runs and our defense came alive in the fourth quarter. We've been very good defensively in the fourth quarter. It's a four quarter game, so it was really neat to get us another bowl championship down here."

Spurrier informed Shaw in front of the media that he had been invited to the 2014 NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February.

Wisconsin amassed 293 yards rushing, but managed just 117 yards passing and committed turnovers on each of their fourth quarter possessions as the Gamecock defense dominated the final frame with rally-killing interceptions by Kaiwan Lewis and Skai Moore, and a Lewis fumble recovery.

All three fourth quarter turnovers occurred in Gamecock territory.

"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," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "We were going to be aggressive all day long. That was our plan. We were going to be aggressive by nature and I would not change that. But obviously, we can do a better job of coaching them and we've got to make some plays."

USC outgained Wisconsin, 438-410, for the entire game including 255-187 in the second half, and prevailed in the time of possession battle (30:34 to 29:26) against a Badger team that was second in the nation in TOP entering bowl season.

Wisconsin running backs Melvin Gordon (143 yards on 25 carries) and James White (107 yards on 12 carries) combined for 250 rushing yards, but the Wisconsin offense seemed to struggle when the ball wasn't in their hands.

"I'm glad the team that rushed for the most yards did not win today," Spurrier said. "I didn't realize they had quite that many, but I knew they had a lot of big runs. Even though we gave up a lot of rushing yards in the middle of the field, our guys were pretty tough down in there. They made some key third downs, which enabled those drives in the first half to keep going.

"Scoring is the big defensive stat, as we all know. We held them to 17 points (on defense). It was a good day for our defense, even though Wisconsin is a good running team."

Jadeveon Clowney closed out his brilliant career by batting down multiple Wisconsin passes, including one on the final play of his college career. Following the game, Clowney confirmed what we've known for months - he is headed to the NFL. He is expected to be a top five draft pick in the 2014 NFL Draft scheduled for May 8-10 in New York City.

Leading by a single point at halftime, Wisconsin took the opening kickoff and drove for a 35-yard Jack Russell field goal to extend its lead to 17-13 with 11:19 remaining in the third quarter.

On the Gamecocks' ensuing possession, Shaw fumbled making a cut, giving the ball to the Badgers at the SC 31. But the Gamecock defense stiffened and Russell missed a 43-yard field goal attempt, keeping the deficit for the Gamecocks at four points.

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At that point, the hard-fought contest turned into the Bruce Ellington show. Ellington made a spectacular one-handed grab on fourth-and-7 from the UW 44 for a do-or-die 22-yard gain. Two plays later, Ellington caught a 22-yard touchdown pass for his second scoring catch of the game, grabbing the pass from Shaw and leaping over the pylon for the score, giving USC a 20-17 lead after three quarters.

"The fourth (down) play was interesting," Spurrier said. "We called the same play on third and 15, but Bruce went the wrong way. We called the same corner route, same play we threw against Missouri. When Connor threw it a little high, I said, 'Oh, it may be a little high.' Bruce got a hand on it, tipped it to himself and came down with it. The touchdown was a very similar play. Bruce, somehow or another, broke wide open and (Shaw) hit him perfectly."

USC was 64-7 when leading after the third quarter under Spurrier during his nine years at the helm and that statistic held true as the Gamecocks outscored the Badgers, 14-7, in the final quarter to win by double digits.

Early in the fourth, Wisconsin drove as far as the USC 26 when it faced third-and-1. USC stacked up Gordon for a short gain, setting up a fourth-and-inches. Not surprisingly, the Badgers elected to go for it, but spur Sharrod Golightly blew up the play and tackled Gordon about two feet behind the line of scrimmage for the crucial turnover on downs with 14:14 remaining.

The rest of the game was dominated by the Gamecocks except for a long 91-yard kickoff return by Wisconsin.

Three plays after the key defensive stop close to the red zone, Roland stepped up and made a spectacular Alshon-esque catch over two Wisconsin defenders for a huge 49-yard gain to the UW 10. Moments later, Shaw found tight end Jerell Adams when he flowed to the left with no Wisconsin defender within five yards of him for the sophomore's second TD catch of the 2013 season.

The extra point gave USC a 27-17 lead with just over 11 minutes remaining.

The seemingly comfortable 10-point advantage didn't last long, though, as Wisconsin's Kenzel Doe caught Landon Ard's ensuing kickoff at the UW nine-yard line and raced 91 yards down the left sideline for the Badgers' first kickoff return for a touchdown of the season.

With the outcome in the balance, Shaw displayed his exquisite senior leadership by engineering a pressure-packed nine-play, 88-yard drive culminating in the senior's one-yard plunge for a touchdown with 6:22 left in the contest.

The clutch drive restoring USC's 10-point lead (34-24) was highlighted by a 33-yard pass to Roland on a deep out pattern to the UW 44. Four consecutive rushes (11, 13, 10 and 9 yards) gained 43 yards, putting the ball at the one and set the stage for Shaw's 18th career touchdown.

Wisconsin drove out to midfield when a tipped pass flew into Lewis' arms for USC's second interception of the game.

However, USC running back Brandon Wilds returned the favor two plays later when his fumble was recovered by the Badgers at the SC 48.

Moore picked off his second Badger pass of the afternoon in the middle of the end zone for Wisconsin's third turnover of the day, all interceptions.

Any leftover drama finally drained from the game when Gordon fumbled at the SC 23 on a hook-and-ladder play. Lewis fell on the football at the 18, cementing the win with 1:09 left.

"We came together as a team today," Ellington said. "Connor did a great job of leading us. We just came together as a team today and just built on what we did all week and came out and played."

USC accepted the opening kickoff and on the game's first play, Shaw rifled a pass to Ellington for 20 yards to the SC 45. Eventually, USC faced a 4th-and-inches at the UW 46 and Shaw powered forward for the first down.

However, the drive stalled and the Gamecocks were forced to punt from the UW 36 following a 10-play drive.

Wisconsin stuck to the run for most of its first drive and when Lewis made a nice third-down tackle, the Badgers set up in field goal formation. But they ran a fake, which resulted in an incomplete pass over the middle.

USC took over at its 30 with 4:46 left in the quick-moving first quarter. Davis reversed direction smartly and picked up 14 yards around right end on the first snap.

Late in the first quarter, Wisconsin committed the first turnover of the game in quirky fashion when a pass from quarterback Joel Stave deflected off the leg of a Wisconsin lineman and deflected into Moore's arms for his third interception of the season.

When the opponent turns the ball over on its side of the field, Spurrier usually calls for a deep pass into the end zone and this occasion was no different.

Shaw connected with Ellington in the middle of the end zone for the first score, and a 7-0 lead for the Gamecocks with less than a minute remaining in the first quarter.

Wisconsin used a key third down conversion, a 20-yard run and a 36-yard pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen to set themselves up at the SC one-yard line early in the second quarter. Surprisingly, the Badgers sought to throw the ball into the end zone, and they were successful as Stave found backup tight end Sam Arneson for the touchdown.

Shaw gave USC new life on the ensuing possession when he scrambled right and flipped a pass to Davis for the first down near midfield.

The conversion paid off moments later when Ellington made a sensational catch at the UW 10 by twisting his body to catch a pass from Shaw that was behind him.

Spurrier pulled another rabbit out of his bag of tricks for USC's second touchdown. Shaw started the play by handing off to Pharoh Cooper on the fly sweep. The freshman handed off to Ellington, who took a couple of steps before lofting a pass across the field to the wide open Shaw in the right corner of the end zone. The best moniker for the play? Fly sweep reverse throwback pass.

Wisconsin, though, was undaunted. They proceeded to march 75 yards in 16 plays for the go-ahead touchdown on a three-yard pass to Jeff Duckworth with 13 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

The Badgers ran the ball 11 times on the drive with three rushing attempts gaining 12 or more yards.

Wisconsin outgained USC, 223-183, in total offensive yards in the first half, including 159-41 on the ground.

Shaw was 11-of-13 passing for 133 yards and tied with Davis for the team lead in rushing with 17 yards. USC averaged less than three yards per carry in the first half, while Wisconsin averaged 7.2 yards per rush.

SCORING SUMMARY:
1Q - USC, Ellington 39-yard pass from Shaw (Xpt good), 00:41 (7-0)
2Q - WIS, Arneson 1-yard pass from Stave (Xpt good), 12:45 (7-7)
2Q - USC, Shaw 9-yard pass from Ellington (Xpt failed), 6:48 (13-7)
2Q - WIS, Duckworth 3-yard pass from Stave (Xpt good), 00:13 (13-14).
3Q - WIS, Russell 35-yard field goal, 11:19 (13-17)
3Q - USC, Ellington, 22-yard pass from Shaw, 3:29 (20-17)
4Q - USC, Adams 3-yard pass from Shaw, 11:05 (27-17)
4Q - WIS, Doe 91-yard kickoff return, 10:54 (27-24)
4Q - USC, Shaw 1-yard run, 5:48 (34-24).

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