Wisconsin's defensive line did its job against South Carolina's running game, neutralizing the Gamecocks' two best running options – tailback Mike Davis and quarterback Connor Shaw – by holding them under 50 yards each. South Carolina averaged only 3.4 yards per rush and only had three rushes over 10 yards. That was all good.
The bad were that two of those rushes came on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter. UW had some momentum following a kick return for a touchdown to cut the SC lead to 27-24, but the Gamecocks ripping off a pair of runs in UW territory gave South Carolina the momentum back.
The front also didn't get enough pressure on Shaw, registering no sacks, tackles for loss or quarterback hurries. In fact, the line's leading tackle (Ethan Hemer) only had two tackles. More pressure on Shaw might have led to more production on the back end.
Wisconsin held 11 of 13 opponents under 130 rushing yards, including four under 75 total yards, and only eight rushing touchdowns all season. UW did struggle against Ohio State (season-high 192 rushing yards) and Arizona State (season-high four touchdowns), but the Badgers were dominant for long stretches of the season.
Beau Allen was underappreciated this season because he didn't put up the gaudy numbers, but was invaluable in helping the linebackers make plays. He'll earn a nice chunk of change next season. Hemer struggled in his transition from tackle to end, but was a very serviceable piece on the end. The same goes with Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel. In order to be truly effective, UW will need some quicker, leaner playmakers at that spot.
Warren Herring will need to step up and be a leader next season for the Badgers, especially since UW graduates its top four players on the line. The line was good, but it can be better.
Senior linebacker Chris Borland thought the defense had great preparation and played hard enough to win, but the Badgers, as has been the case the last four years, didn't play well enough against a team with equal or better talent than they had.
Borland led UW with nine tackles but UW got a glimpse into the future with Vince Biegel (three tackles) and Joe Schobert (three tackles, an eight-yard sack that knocked SC out of FG range) playing well on the outside. Derek Landisch and Conor O'Neill forced two rare Shaw fumbles, but UW's offense couldn't convert either into crucial points despite good field position.
The linebackers also needed to be walk a fine line in stopping Shaw. With the front seven staying aggressive, the linebackers needed to get more hits and pressure on Shaw to make things work in system. It didn't happen, and the results were pretty.
"Our plan was to be aggressive and at times, we didn't get the pressure we should have and at times he was able to extend plays," said Borland. "That's very frustrating. We've seen it before."
Can Wisconsin replace Borland? That will be the question that will be asked over and over again throughout the offseason. He was tremendous, earning first-team all-conference, Big Ten linebacker of the year, Big Ten defensive player of the year and was a first-team All-American. He posted four straight double-digit tackle games in dominant performances in November, putting UW on the cusp of a BCS bowl. He had seven double-digit tackle games and finished with 100-or-more tackles his final three seasons. Wow.
Brendan Kelly finally looked comfortable on the field as an outside linebacker, although his lack of speed hurt him as times. Ethan Armstrong is practically duct taped together but finished third on the team in tackles. O'Neill was another player who had a breakout season for Wisconsin after finally finding his niche.
The future is bright for this group with Landisch, Biegel, Schobert and Marcus Trotter returning, as the group will need to pick up the slack left behind by No.44.
Entering the Capital One Bowl, Peniel Jean said the secondary was well equipped to handle the South Carolina passing attack because the Gamecocks don't spread the ball around as much. He felt UW was a lot like the Badgers.
Dezmen Southward said the Badgers wanted to keep him in the pocket so Wisconsin could at least control what Shaw was doing, while Michael Caputo added that UW wanted the front seven to stop the QB run game so the secondary could focus solely on covering.
Knowing that, Wisconsin's secondary performance was even more abysmal that original thought.
"They took some shots down the field that we didn't execute properly," said Caputo. "Obviously they turned into big plays for them."
South Carolina's receivers did make some outstanding catches, but UW's secondary didn't make it nearly as challenging as it should have been. Shaw carved up Wisconsin for 312 yards on 22 of 25 passing and three touchdowns. He was that dominant, as the Gamecocks had seven plays over 20 yards.
"We were there," said safety Tanner McEvoy. "We just had to make a play, and the ball wasn't rolling our way. That can happen (and) we can't win."
Sojourn Shelton led the group with five tackles, but was beaten badly on an inside slant route that went for SC's first touchdown. Southward was put into a cornerback position again and failed to adequately cover Bruce Ellington, surprising considering Southward's experience and athleticism. Southward playing corner showed the lack of depth, or confidence, UW has in its reserve CBs in certain packages.
A fitting snapshot of the secondary occurred early in the fourth quarter with the Gamecocks holding a 20-17 lead and facing second-and-7 from their 41. Shaw connected with wide receiver Shaq Roland, who went up between Shelton and Caputo for a 49-yard reception to the UW 10, as the duo simply looked at each other bewildered that neither one of them made a plan on the ball.
"The defining moment is you have to make is on contested footballs, and that's really the identification of a talented defensive back," said Wisconsin coach Gary 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? South Carolina won that many times. And it's a defining moment for us and we need to understand it and get better."
A lot better, because they were poor.
Wisconsin blew a lot of coverages the last two games and certainly didn't look like they were on the same page against Penn State or South Carolina. After playing 11 games prior to that, that's really surprising. Andersen understands the group needs playmakers and the Badgers have spent plenty of time recruiting to bolster their safety depth and speed.
McEvoy will spend the spring battling for the quarterback spot, but his career seems better suited at safety. He was one of the nice surprises this season along with Caputo, two players that give UW's coverage unit some options going forward after breakout seasons.
Shelton led the team in interception and has a bright future ahead for this program. Darius Hillary should also be better with a year of experience, but the Badgers need more from Jean, Devin Gaulden, T.J. Reynard and others on the roster. Wisconsin's secondary intercepted only eight passes this season, four from Shelton. That's not nearly enough. UW simply wasn't good enough or talented enough in games in which they played above-average quarterbacks.
Jack Russell said he thought he struck his 42-yard field goal attempt well and thought it was headed right down the middle, but that the wind picked up and pushed it wide right. Russell has kicked in worse, and that kick would have been a big lift for UW.
Kenzel Doe's 91-yard kickoff return in the final quarter got UW back into the game at 27-24. The Badgers needed a big play, and Doe delivered UW's first kickoff return for a touchdown in a bowl game. The fake field goal might have worked had South Carolina not seen it coming, according to holder Drew Meyer, so perhaps the Badgers should have schemed it up a touch better. Meyer was forced to throw to his third option on the play and the high, contested pass fell incomplete.
Wisconsin didn't punt on the day and didn't allow a kickoff return of more than 20 yards in four attempts. The unit was good except for the critical miss.
The kicking situation wasn't quite a disaster, but certainly wasn't a comfort level for the staff. That's one of the reasons the Badgers decided to go for a fake field goal instead of a 47-yard try with the wind at their back.
"Not the best harsh for us right now; that's why we drew it up," said Andersen. "The yardage was very good in favor of where we like to be in that situation. So from a coaching standpoint, we absolutely liked it."
Russell made nine of his last 11 kicks, which is a positive, and will battle with incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone in the summer and fall. I'm still want to know if Kyle French would have made that field goal kick in the desert to beat Arizona State …
Meyer has the punting role locked down after a steady season and Doe ended the year on a good note with his return. With Jared Abbrederis graduating, Doe will need to become more confident in the punt-catching game, as his iffy catches, fumbles and poor decisions could have cost UW some serious points. UW needs to increase its team speed in the return game, which has been addressed in the 2014 recruiting class.