At some schools, it might get boring.
At South Carolina, the beautiful monotony of 11-2 seasons is the salad days.
The No. 8 Gamecocks cranked out another one Wednesday by outlasting No. 19 Wisconsin 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl. In each of the past three years, the winningest in school history, South Carolina has won 11, lost two and finished 6-2 in the SEC.
“In all my life, we’ve never had three years identical,” said coach Steve Spurrier, who coached his 300th collegiate game and won his 219th. “I mean, think about it: 6-2 in the conference, 11-2, win a bowl game, beat Clemson in all three. They’re identical. These were games that could have gone either way, and somehow or another, these guys make plays to win the game. So it’s been amazing. It’s been a wonderful time for all of us.”
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Even the method of victory came right out of the handbook that has produced more wins in the past four years (42) than in the entire decade of the 1990s (41) — hang around, dodge a bullet and make the plays that make the difference. On Wednesday, it was senior quarterback Connor Shaw and junior wide receiver Bruce Ellington making most of those plays.
Shaw completed 22 of 25 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a touchdown and caught the first pass of his collegiate career, a 9-yard touchdown from Ellington in the second quarter. He was named the game’s MVP.
“I didn’t realize it was quite that good,” Spurrier said. “A lot of guys can’t hit that in warm-ups, that really is something.”
Ellington caught six passes, two of them dazzling, for a career-high 140 yards, and scored two touchdowns in what might be his final game at South Carolina.
“Connor likes the big games, and so does Bruce. And sometimes we have a few guys that get a little shaky in big games or whatever, but not these guys,” Spurrier said. “So when your key players like the tough situation, like close games, fourth quarter, the way these two especially, then you have a chance for good things to happen. We’ve won 11 this year, and there’s been six or seven that could have gone either way. It went our way so often this year. So we have a lot to be thankful for. We have been a blessed team this year.”
The Capital One Bowl hung in the balance until freshman linebacker Skai Moore intercepted a Curt Phillips pass in the end zone with 4:40 remaining. The Badgers, who rushed for 293 yards and returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, led until Shaw found Ellington for a 22-yard touchdown pass that put South Carolina ahead 20-17 with 3:29 left in the third quarter.
Wisconsin’s offensive line controlled the game much of the day, but South Carolina’s defense stiffened and forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter and four overall.
“I just felt like, if we got lined up, we would be fine,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “I just stopped moving the players so much, let them line up and said, ‘Let’s go man on man.’”
The Badgers averaged 5.9 yards per play compared to South Carolina’s 7.3 and scored three offensive points in the second half. Wisconsin fell to 9-4 in front of 56,629 soggy fans at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
“We felt like they were holding a lot. They were holding a lot, and it wasn’t getting called so we stopped complaining and started playing football and took over,” cornerback Victor Hampton said. “Once we buckled down in the second half, it was over with.”
The Gamecocks, who have won three consecutive bowl games for the first time, scored three touchdowns in the final 18 minutes, 29 seconds.
“We’ve been very good, definitely, in the fourth quarter, and it’s a fourth-quarter game,” Spurrier said. “It was really neat to get us another bowl championship down here. Feels pretty good.”