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January 4, 2014

Good, bad and unknown



After a few days of simmering, here are some good and bad takeaways from South Carolina's 34-24 Capital One Bowl victory over Wisconsin, plus some questions the game raised heading into the offseason.

The Good

Connor Shaw: G.O.A.T. It's hard to think of a player who got a more fitting end to his career than Connor Shaw did in the Capital One Bowl. The senior had made a career out of terrorizing defenses with both his arm and his legs, evidenced by the drooping heads and the deep sighs he left in opposing locker rooms throughout his 2 1/2 year tenure as South Carolina's starting quarterback.

But Shaw saved his best for last, effectively dropping the mic against Wisconsin after a game where he gobbled up every yard the defense offered him and improvised to make plays happen when nothing was available.

Shaw's 368-yard, five-touchdown performance against the Badgers gives him 2,447 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and just one interception for his senior year, plus and additiontal 558 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. It also cements his place on South Carolina's Mount Rushmore as one of the school's greatest ever to put on a uniform. For South Carolina's all-time winningest quarterback, the Capital One Bowl MVP trophy and a trip to the NFL Combine were just the icing on the cake. And what a wonderful cake it was.

Bruce Ellington, the spark. Simply put, South Carolina doesn't win the Capital One Bowl without Bruce Ellington. The junior receiver, as he has often in the past (re: Clemson 2012, Michigan 2013, Missouri 2013, Florida 2013, etc.), broke the game open when the Gamecocks desperately needed to pick up steam on offense. Ellington's biggest contribution came on a fourth-and-7 with the Gamecocks down 17-13 in the third quarter, when the dual-sport athlete juggled and snagged a 22-yard sideline pass to keep the drive alive.

Ellington would haul in another 22-yard catch -- this time for a touchdown -- two plays later, giving South Carolina a lead it would never relinquish. The Moncks Corner, S.C., native caught four other passes to finish with 140 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and tossed a touchdown to Connor Shaw as well. There have been worse ways to end a career.

Shaq Roland. South Carolina's best deep threat was at it again in Orlando, Fla. The sophomore receiver hauled in six passes for 112 yards, including one 49-yard, slightly underthrown rainbow that he launched himself high in the air to corral between two well-positioned Wisconsin defensive backs. Average and even above-average players simply don't make that catch, but Roland did. And he probably would nine times out of 10, given the way he came down with balls down the stretch.

Roland finished the season with 25 catches for 455 yards and five touchdowns, setting the tone for a productive 2014 campaign with a strong performance in the Capital One Bowl.

Skai Moore, the phenom. Watching on TV as Moore logged five tackles and two interceptions -- one of them clinching the game in the fourth quarter -- Rutgers fans must have felt sick to their stomachs. The Cooper City, Fla., native picked South Carolina over the Scarlet Knights on 2013's National Signing Day, and has contributed early and often for the Gamecocks.

The freshman learned as he went along, getting better with each game to become South Carolina's best linebacker and one of its brighter spots on defense looking to the future. Moore led the team as a true freshman with 56 tackles and four interceptions, but the scary thing is that it's safe to say his best is yet to come.

Jadeveon Clowney, the monster. Clowney was too much for Wisconsin to handle, as the Badgers several times assigned just one blocker to the All-American and paid the price. Playing in his final college game, the Rock Hill, S.C., native appeared back in his sophomore season form, chasing down Wisconsin tailbacks from behind, coming across the field to make plays and clogging passing lanes on the left side of the field. The junior logged five tackles, a tackle for loss, two pass breakups -- not counting the pass that deflected off of his helmet and was intercepted by Kaiwan Lewis -- and a quarterback hurry.

Going out on top. College football's smallest senior class left South Carolina as its most accomplished seniors yet. The four-man group continued to build on its school record for wins, getting its 42nd against a Wisconsin team with 22 seniors -- a whopping 19 of them fifth-year seniors -- on its roster. South Carolina's three-straight 11-2 win seasons and bowl victories have come in no small part due to the efforts of Connor Shaw, Jimmy Legree, Ronald Patrick and Chaz Sutton.


The Bad

No defensive consistency. South Carolina's defense took on the form it showed against Georgia and Tennessee through three quarters of the Capital One Bowl, failing to string together enough good plays to stop the Badgers in their tracks. The Gamecocks managed to force several third-and-long situations -- per the formula to defending a team with a below-average quarterback -- but somehow allowed Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave to seep through the defense for first downs, a trend reminiscent of Tennessee's inexplicable third-down success that cost the Gamecocks a BCS berth and possibly a trip to Pasadena, Calif.

The Gamecocks never forced Wisconsin to punt, allowing the Badgers to bully them on the ground to the tune of 293 rushing yards and an excessive number of trips into South Carolina territory. But perhaps that's what made it so much sweeter for South Carolina when the defense pulled itself together just in time to secure the victory in the fourth quarter.

The Gamecocks forced three turnovers on Wisconsin's final three drives, but their finest moment came when they sold out against the run on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 from their own 26-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter, stuffing Melvin Gordon, one of the nation's most explosive ball carriers, for no gain on both plays and forcing a turnover on downs.

Special teams. South Carolina struggled in nearly every aspect of special teams play against Wisconsin, which would have surely haunted the team for months if the Badgers had managed to pull out the upset. Tyler Hull averaged 33.7 yards on three punts, the Gamecocks returned four kicks for just 54 total yards, and South Carolina's kick coverage team had all kinds of issues -- surrendering a whopping 32 yards per return.

It's hard to tell whether the defining moment of South Carolina's special teams performance was the second-quarter PAT attempt where Patrick Fish failed to get down the hold and was plastered short of the goal line, or whether it was Kenzel Doe's 91-yard kick return for a touchdown, one where Kane Whitehurst caught Doe down the sideline, but was stiff-armed to the ground without forcing the returner to lose his stride or balance.

The power-running game. If former walk-on fullback Connor McLaurin hadn't already earned a scholarship before the season began, the coaches might have handed him one after a Capital One Bowl game where he didn't play, nursing a broken ankle. Coaches were reluctant to trust walk-on Garrison Gist with handling the blocking duties out of the I-formation, and called fewer handoffs to Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds as a result. McLaurin's absence neutralized the effect of South Carolina's tailbacks, who carried the ball just 12 times for 65 yards on New Year's Day.

It's overlooked now because South Carolina torched the Badgers through the air and Connor Shaw tallied for 47 yards and a touchdown on the ground, but losing McLaurin -- and not having a viable backup fullback -- could have proven costly for the Gamecocks.


The Unknown

Time to cash in? Four South Carolina underclassmen decided to forego their senior seasons and declare for the NFL Draft, but were they making the best choices? For Jadeveon Clowney, an almost guaranteed top-five pick and perhaps the most freakishly-talented player in school history, it was a no-brainer. For Kelcy Quarles, who ranked second in the SEC in sacks (9.5) and third in tackles for loss (13.5), leaving early was clearly the best option.

But for receiver Bruce Ellington and cornerback Victor Hampton, the jury is still out. Hampton played the best football of his career in the second half of this season, shutting down the likes of Dorial Green-Beckam and Jared Abbrederis while collecting seven pass deflections and an interception in his last six games. The redshirt junior will have some of the best instincts and cover skills of any defensive back in the Draft, but he could have used another season to better himself as a complete football player.

Ellington also decided to strike while the iron was hot, deciding after a six-catch, 140 yard, three-touchdown performance in the Capital One Bowl to turn in his cleats. The 5-foot-9, 196-pounder appears to be following in the footsteps of Ace Sanders as a second- or third-day draft choice, but considering how he's progressed in three years as a receiver (211 yards in 2011, 600 in '12, 775 in '13), it's hard to see him not considerably improving his stock if he'd stayed another year. Will it prove wise for he and Hampton to have cashed in? Only time and bank statements will tell.

Is Roland's stage set? The wideout began to grasp the playbook in his sophomore year, improving from five catches for 80 yards and a touchdown in year one to 25 catches for 455 yards and five scores in year two. Roland hauled in mind-boggling catches all season, starting with his 65-yard touchdown on the third play of the season and finishing with a 112-yard performance and South Carolina's best catch of the season against Wisconsin. Of course, there were a few nice ones in between, like the three he pulled in on South Carolina's final drive against Georgia, the two he hauled in for scores against Mississippi State, or the bomb he caught from Pharoh Cooper against Clemson despite an egregious pass interference penalty (called back, but upon extended YouTube analysis, it was absolutely a catch).

With Ellington gone and Damiere Byrd questionable to be back from a torn meniscus by the start of spring practice, Roland looks to be the number one receiver heading into 2014. He'll almost certainly make the same spectacular passes next season with Dylan Thompson quarterback -- Thompson is much more prone to lobbing jump balls and deep passes into traffic than Shaw -- but two questions remain for Roland. Can he embrace the role as the go-to receiver and be a dependable, every-down type of target for Thompson? And will he become an assassin, harnessing the focus and killer instinct that made Alshon Jeffery so dominant?

Is Dylan Thompson ready? Like Roland, Thompson is set to take on a much larger role this season. But unlike Roland, the Boiling Springs, S.C., native faces the challenge of replacing the most accomplished quarterback in school history. Thompson regressed in terms of production in 2013, passing for 783 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions after a 1,027-yard, 10-touchdown, 2-pick sophomore season. But with only one offensive lineman and one receiver leaving, he will hold the reins to an incredibly talented offense next season.

There's no doubting that Thompson can lead South Carolina to a solid season, as he's 3-0 as a starter and played well in the majority of his relief appearances for Shaw over the past few seasons. The only question is if he will be "great," whether he can become the Tee Martin to Shaw's Peyton Manning (as one Gamecock Central poster so fittingly put it a few days back).

Thompson played well enough against Clemson and Michigan in 2012 and UCF in 2013 to win, but can he perform consistently enough to beat the teams South Carolina should beat, and spectacularly enough to spur the Gamecocks to victory in games they aren't expected to win (re: Shaw, Missouri 2013) next season?

Again, only time will tell. If only next season were next week.



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