The numbers suggest that the passing game struggled, and you would be correct to say that it did. Wisconsin passes for 117 yards on just 16 completed passes in 26 attempts and threw three interceptions, numbers that aren't going to beat many teams and especially not a SEC team.
Some credit has to be given to Joel Stave and his first-half performance. The interception he threw was a fluke, trying to throw away a screen pass that bounced off an offensive lineman's foot and into the arms of a South Carolina linebacker. Instead of spiraling down, Stave stepped up by going 3-for-3 for 48 yards on Wisconsin's ensuing scoring drive to tie the game.
And when South Carolina scored on a 12-play, 86-yard drive that took 5:56 off the clock, Stave came back with a 16-play, 76-yard touchdown-throwing drive that took 6:35 off the clock. Both drives included him converting on third-and-long situations and the latter touchdown throw to Jeff Duckworth gave UW a lead going into halftime.
"I thought we did some really good things offensively in the first half," said Stave, who went 7-for-11 for 64 yards in the first half. "We scored some points, extending drives and converting third downs. That's everything you want as a quarterback … I thought we did a great job responding to what they did."
It was tough draw for Curt Phillips following Stave's third quarter injury. Phillips said he hadn't taken many reps with the first team offense in weeks and haven't played in a meaningful game in a year. The sixth-year senior admitted that he didn't capitalize on his opportunities under his watch, as UW's last four drives ended in turnovers (two interceptions, one turnover on downs, one fumble) and all four in South Carolina territory (three inside the 30).
Unlike last year, Wisconsin was able to stick with one quarterback throughout the season and offense seemed to function better overall than 2012. That's not saying a ton, but it's a step in the right direction. Stave's season wasn't horrible – his 22 touchdown passes this season were second most in school history behind Russell Wilson's 33 – and he played his best in the big games on the schedule, but he'll be the first to admit that he has to get better in all aspects.
UW can't leave yards on the field, as Stave missed a lot of open throws that irritated the coaching staff. It would also behoove him to slide as to not risk his body due to injury. Him in effect knocking himself out of the game was a big blow to UW's comeback chances.
His performance on the field aside, Phillips will be missed.
Running Backs Wisconsin felt confident that they could run the ball against South Carolina's talented defensive line and they were right. The Badgers' 293 rushing yards were the most the Gamecocks allowed all season, as UW averaged 6.8 yards per carry. They didn't score a touchdown, but the success of the running game opened up the ability for UW to go play-action at the goal line, resulting in both first half touchdowns. Melvin Gordon and James White were themselves. Gordon was the workhorse with 143 yards on 20 carries while White finished his career with his 18th 100-yard performance, rushing for 106 yards and 8.6 yards per carry. White's versatility also led UW to running the wildcat, resulting in a 32-yard Corey Clement run on a trick play.
Gordon rushed for at least 140 yards for the eighth time this season to finish with 1,609, eighth all-time in UW history, but he'll be bemoaning himself for not getting at least one more at the start of the fourth quarter when he was stopped on third-and-one and fourth-and-one, albeit the last play caused by a missed blocking assignment.
"In the trenches, you've got to make something happen as a back," said Gordon. "I should have got in on third and one."
White finished his career with 4,011 rushing yards, good for fourth place in school history, trailing only Ron Dayne (7,125), Montee Ball (5,140) and Anthony Davis (4,676). For White, he finished with 18 career 100-yard rushing game, tying him with John Clay for sixth place on Wisconsin's all-time list. UW went 17-1 when he rushed for 100 yards. He might be the most talented/underappreciated back in school history.
Gordon and White ran for 100 yards in the same game six times, became the first teammates in FBS history to rush for at least 1,400 yards in the same season and their combined total 3,053 yards are better than the FBS record of 3,004 set by Nevada's Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson in 2012. In a word, they were outstanding.
Gordon's decision to return is smart. He needs to get better at running between the tackles, pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield, all things White became really good at as he got older. I have no doubt that Gordon will be even better come August.
Corey Clement is a star in the making for UW and will slide in nicely into the rotation. Derek Watt's continued development at fullback is a plus, as well. This group was the best unit for UW.
Wisconsin's receivers made the most of its opportunities in a game were pass completions were limited. Jared Abbrederis – one of the best receivers in school history – had a team-high five catches for 30 yards while tight end Jacob Pedersen has a team-best 60 yards (39 on one play) on five catches. Abbrederis, as he was for much of the second half of the season, was neutralized by South Carolina's defense as the game went on. That's to be as expected, since UW didn't have another receiver who can be counted on.
Duckworth continued to make big catches in big games (as his three-yard touchdown made up for a drop), Brian Wozniak made a big third-down catch on UW's final offensive scoring drive and Alex Erickson went up and hauled in a six-yard pass despite paying for it with a big hit. That catch allowed UW to go for it on fourth down and eventually go for a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal.
The group played up to their expectations, but didn't surpass them.
Breaking the Wisconsin single season receptions mark with 78 catches and tied Brandon Williams' career receptions mark, Abbrederis carried this unit for the past two seasons. He was a stellar playmaker who was a key fixture in the pass-catching, run-blocking and special-teams game. He will be sorely missed. Does UW have a number one receiver currently on its roster right now? Probably not, which means UW will have to have a committee approach again next season and rely on its incoming recruits.
Although he wasn't named the tight end of the year like he was a year ago, one could argue that Pedersen had a better overall season. He was a good option in the pass game and improved in the blocking game. Brian Wozniak became a nice number two option, as well, meaning Sam Arneson (who caught his fourth TD of the season in the bowl game) will have a large role ahead of him.
This group was great at downfield blocking and opening up alleys for the tailbacks. If they can catch the ball as well as they block, they will be very good. UW has made receivers a recruiting emphasis going forward, and it's obvious to see why.
Still bitter from its performance against Penn State, Wisconsin's offensive line redeemed itself with a superb performance in the trenches against a South Carolina front that was probably the best they saw all season. Ryan Groy, Dan Voltz and Kyle Costigan nullified All-American nose guard Kelcy Quarles (three assisted tackles) while tackles Tyler Marz and Rob Havenstein held up well against Jadeveon Cloweny (five tackles, one tackle for loss, two breakups and one hurry).
Chaz Sutton had the only sack, but it came at a good time on a third-and-7 from the South Carolina 10, forcing a field goal.
Wisconsin's offensive-line won trenches (293 rushing yards) and provided good protection to allow the quarterbacks a chance to make a play.
A line without a dominant talent held up well this season, staying relativity injury free and embracing the teachings of offensive line coach T.J. Woods. The versatility of Groy was invaluable, but he is the only full-time starter the Badgers will need to replace. Marz and Costigan played well despite a variety of injuries he battled through throughout the second half of the season. Havenstein took steps forward and has asserted himself as an above-average right tackle.
Voltz's play down the stretch should give the Badgers flexibility to move Dallas Lewallen to left guard. Lewallen didn't play after the Iowa game because of a leg injury, but has taken reps at guard. The influx of high-ranking recruits will help fortify the depth that has been developed by Ray Ball, Walker Williams and others.
The Badgers' line was solid for the most part, but didn't fair nearly as well against the better fronts of Ohio State and Penn State. If Wisconsin wants to hit an elite level, the Badgers need to dominate all their opponents, even the highly ranked ones.