ORLANDO, Fla. - No. 19 Wisconsin prepared well for its Capital One Bowl showdown with No. 8 South Carolina, but a failure to make big plays sent the Badgers home to Madison, Wis., with the bad taste of a 34-24 loss in their mouths.
The Badgers played to their strengths Wednesday in Orlando, gashing South Carolina's defense with a power-running game while holding the Gamecocks to just 117 yards on the ground. But Wisconsin never found the big play it needed to break the game open, and it couldn't prevent the Gamecocks from hitting it instead.
"I thought we had great preparation and played hard -- hard enough to win -- but didn't execute well enough," said senior linebacker Chris Borland, who registered a team-high nine tackles against South Carolina. "Gave up a trick play, gave up some deep balls and at times got gashed by the run. Give South Carolina credit. It played well, but at the end of the day it was execution."
Epitomizing the game was Wisconsin's turnover on downs early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 20-17, Wisconsin drove 49 yards to South Carolina's 26-yard line. But sophomore Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin's most explosive tailback, was stopped for no gain on third-and-1, then stuffed again on fourth-and-1. South Carolina would extend its lead to 27-17 on the ensuing drive, and the Badgers never recovered.
Redshirt sophomore safety Tanner McEvoy, who spent a season at South Carolina before transferring to a junior college in 2011, said it was frustrating to come so close, but come up short.
"I feel like momentum was bouncing back and forth. I feel like we were in it the whole time," McEvoy said. "We had our opportunities. They executed, and we didn't. That's how you win ball games, especially between two great teams."
South Carolina's ability make extraordinary plays and to stop Wisconsin in crucial situations was what defined the game, said senior receiver Jared Abbrederis.
"That was the story of the game," Abbrederis said. "They made some big plays, and we didn't make any. Hats off to them. They made some big catches, some runs, things like that. We weren't really able to really capitalize on the big plays that we got with turnovers."
Most of those plays were sparked by South Carolina senior Connor Shaw, who accounted for 380 total yards and all five of the Gamecocks' touchdowns. Borland said Wisconsin knew what they were up against in Shaw, having already faced dual-threat quarterbacks in Ohio State's Braxton Miller and BYU's Taysom Hill, but noted his disappointment that the Badgers couldn't contain him better.
"He's kind of their engine," Borland said. "He does a great job of extending plays and doesn't necessarily look to scramble, but to make a throw. He hurt us on that on the very first drive and a couple more times later in the game. Their offense goes as he goes, and he played well.
"You kind of walk a fine line between being aggressive, getting after the quarterback and containing him, and our play was to be aggressive. At times I didn't think we got the pressure that we should have, and at other times, he was able to extend plays. So, very frustrating. That's the kind of headache that dual-threat quarterbacks give you. We've seen it before. We've played better against dual-threat quarterbacks, but didn't play well enough to win today. Got to give him a lot of credit. He's a great player."
McEvoy, who tallied three tackles in the game, echoed Borland.
"We knew what we were getting ourselves into," McEvoy said. "Connor's a great football player. He knows how to win games and knows how to move the sticks and keep going like that. We were trying to contain him and I think we were doing a pretty good job. If a couple of big plays went our way, you never know what could have happened. But they executed, so they won."
The loss, Wisconsin's second straight, kept an accomplished senior class from tying the school's all-time record of 40 wins. Senior defensive end and former walk-on Ethan Hemer wished he'd ended his career on better terms.
"Disappointing end to the season," Hemer said. "We came so close and you could almost feel the momentum shift after every play. It's disappointing that we weren't able to come out on top in this game."
The seniors weren't the only players left downtrodden. McEvoy, who will try to win Wisconsin's starting quarterback job in the spring, said the team's 22-man senior class deserved better than to go out with two-straight losses.
"They had a great team each year they were here," McEvoy said. "We wish we could have sent them out a little different, but we've got to come back next year and try to finish the right way."
Gordon combined this year with senior tailback James White to break the NCAA FBS single-season record for most rushing yards by two teammates, but lamented he couldn't help White -- his mentor at Wisconsin -- go out with a win.
"It meant a lot to me, this game," Gordon said. "I was so focused and I prepared so hard to get this win and to send him off right. We fell short and couldn't get it done, but I can't take away from the season we had together."
White was able to look past the bitterness of the loss.
"It's definitely tough, but I wouldn't trade these four years that I've had for anything," White said. "I've formed a lot of brotherhoods here; we fought hard today."
Jared Abbrederis walked onto Wisconsin in 2009 as the scout team's spread quarterback, and tied Wisconsin's all-time reception record with the final catch of his career Saturday. Finishing the season 9-4 may have been a letdown for a team coming off three Big Ten Championships and Rose Bowl appearances, but the fifth-year senior isn't letting a few losses put a dampener on his career.
"It's been a great year. Four tough losses is something that sticks in your mind, but you can reflect on the good things," Abbrederis said. "This coaching staff is great. This team, I'm going to miss so much. Just thinking about it right now, it's the last time we're going to be together, the last time we're going to see each other. It's been a blessing to be apart of this team, an honor, and I'm going to miss them all."
Hemer, who logged two tackles against South Carolina, was proud of the way Wisconsin played in his final game as a Badger.
"Guys stepped up; we attacked the moment," Hemer said. "No one was down when we were down, or was too high when we were high. I think the way the game ended just kind of leaves everyone in a little bit of a cellar feeling, but the impact of this team and this class extends so much farther beyond wins and losses."
Abbrederis was equally proud of the Badgers' resolve.
"We were right there a couple times, weren't able to finish. That's frustrating," Abbrederis said. "That's kind of been our team. We never quit, we're always fighting to the end."