After the group seemingly took steps forward on a six game winning streak during the easy portion of its schedule after a rocky start, it regressed in a big way in crunch time.
"Frustrating way to end the season as a team," said safety Tanner McEvoy, as No.19 Wisconsin gave up 321 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 34-24 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. "We have to try to bounce back and hopefully next year we can switch it up."
After holding four quarterbacks to less than 200 passing yards and only four touchdowns to get the Badgers (9-4) back into the BCS equation on that winning streak, the final two games of the season were a resounding dud, the biggest thud being delivered by quarterback Connor Shaw.
The senior completed 88 percent of his passes, accounted for 312 of his 377 yards in the air and scored five total touchdowns, frustrating UW's secondary and overcoming UW's mixtures of pressures, schemes and blitzes on his way to MVP honors at the Citrus Bowl.
"He lived up to his billing," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "His ability to understand pressure, even when we got him tricked, running free hitters at him. He's hard to get on the ground. He makes good decisions."
If anybody fully comprehended was Wisconsin was getting itself into with Shaw, it would have been McEvoy. A former teammate of his at South Carolina, McEvoy saw Shaw's natural talent, work ethic and athleticism, picking up valuable learning tips. McEvoy transferred out of the program two seasons ago in search of playing time, since Shaw wasn't going to get up his spot anytime soon.
One can see why, as Shaw finished his senior season with 2,447 yards, 24 passing touchdowns and one interception and his career going 27-5 as a starter.
"Connor is a great football player; he knows how to win games," said McEvoy. "He knows how to move the sticks and keep going like that. We tried to contain him."
Shaw didn't do all the damage by himself. Receiver Bruce Ellington took advantage of one-on-one against Sojourn Shelton and Dezmen Southward to catch six passes for a career-high 140 yards and two scores. He scored a 39-yard touchdown after being Shelton on an inside slant and hauled in a number of spectacular catches against Southward in critical situations.
"We were there," said McEvoy. "We have to make the play, and the ball just wasn't rolling our way. When that can't happen, you can't win."
The Gamecocks had seven catches for at least 20 yards, but none seemed bigger than Shaq Roland's 49-yard completion early in the fourth quarter at the Wisconsin 10, setting up one of Shaw's three touchdown passes. That gave South Carolina a 27-17 lead and came minutes after Melvin Gordon was stopped on third and fourth down.
Roland – whose 112 yards were also a career high- caught the ball right between Shelton and Michael Caputo, who looked bewildered at one another in the aftermath.
"It's a play we repped in practice," said Caputo. "They just happen to come up with it."
Wisconsin vowed its performance in the season finale was in the past, a game in which Penn State true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed three pass plays over 50 yards and threw for four touchdowns in a 31-24 defeat.
Now after allowing the last two quarterbacks UW faced this season to go a combined 43 of 55 for 651 yards and seven touchdowns, the Badgers know one area it can point the figure at in order to get better.
"The defining moment is you have to make is on contested footballs, and that's really the identification of a talented defensive back," said Andersen. "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."