David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.
NO. 8 SOUTH CAROLINA 34, NO. 19 WISCONSIN 24
SOLDIER: What more can be said? Connor Shaw left every piece of his oversized heart on the field. There have been more pro-ready quarterbacks, there have been more talented quarterbacks. There have not been better quarterbacks. Shaw wanted to be the best so badly that he became the best, and his final performance was one for the ages. He only missed on three passes. He threw for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 47 yards and a touchdown. He caught a touchdown. He won a richly deserved MVP award. Shaw reminds me so much of Blake Cooper from the 2010 baseball team – never going to be the first-round draft pick, but just wanted it worse than anybody on the field. He and Shaw serve as models for every under-talented kid growing up in Nowhere, USA, dreaming of being an athletic hero. Shaw was the one who really shoved aside South Carolina’s history of mediocrity and kept it there – some will always decry him for not winning an SEC championship, but it’s not like there are any to compare it to.
FLYPAPER: Bruce Ellington continues to amaze, hauling in passes that, if they were the final ones of his collegiate career, certainly deserve to be on an NFL audition tape. Trying to rank them in terms of greatness/difficulty is about as easy as trying to rank which Hall and Oates song any woman likes the best. The back-shoulder grab where he turned around while running and caught it on his knee? The sideline zipper that Shaw threw to the front row of the seats, that Ellington tipped to himself? The bullet that he snared and then snuck his foot inside the pylon for a touchdown? Deeply hoping that, this year or next, some NFL teams look at the tape instead of looking just at the player. He’ll make some quarterback very, very happy.
LEXINGTON LIGHTNING: Very hard to sustain momentum over an entire offseason, but here’s hoping that Shaq Roland looks at what he did on Wednesday before every spring practice and fall practice next season. He may be the go-to guy next year, if Damiere Byrd is slow to recover from knee surgery and Ellington leaves, which simply completes the legacy everyone knew he was destined for. Roland is the most talented receiver on the roster, but has struggled getting out of his own way. Now that he’s put a string of solid games together, and showed out on Wednesday with a catch under double coverage while falling down, he’s out of his own way. He needs to stay there.
ADJUST AND SURVIVE: Wisconsin’s feet were receiving a vicious pummeling from the hindparts of USC defenders in the first half, the Gamecocks constantly falling down on gap assignments and allowing the Badgers to run nearly unchecked downfield. But, as Steve Spurrier said, the most important defensive statistic is scoring, and USC (and Wisconsin, too) kept the Badgers mostly out of the end zone. Lorenzo Ward preached at halftime for his players to be tougher, to get to their spots sooner, and it worked. The Gamecocks, much like they have been all year, weren’t perfect, but they were hard-nosed enough to shut down the assault, and start to get their hands on the football. The running game was contained, and then Victor Hampton delivered a D.J. Swearinger slobberknocker to Joel Stave, removing him from the game and placing the pressure on backup Curt Phillips. Game, set, match.
TRICKERATION: USC sniffed out a fake field-goal attempt early, and had it played perfectly. Sure, the pass was rifled nearly into the goalpost, but the Gamecocks had the receivers blanketed. Not sure how much that’s worked on in practice, if at all – maybe it was just instinct – but USC was ready for it.
KARNAK: A tradition as old as a trilobite and as predictable as a reality TV show being unwatchable – after a turnover, Spurrier always, always, always takes a shot downfield. Everyone knew it was coming when the Gamecocks got a turnover at midfield, except apparently Wisconsin, which either didn’t watch that part of the tape or had no idea of Spurrier’s infamous tendencies. Sure enough, Shaw faded back, Ellington broke loose and gathered in a well-thrown spiral for a touchdown. Next up: the Gamecocks win another Florida bowl game.
ARRIVED: It wasn’t that long ago that USC was 1-21 in two years, with all 21 in a row. “Wait till next year” was said so much around Columbia that it should have been trademarked, and the hope was that somehow, someway, just maybe, USC could make it to a bowl game in the next season. Those days, as recent as they were, are long, long gone. The Gamecocks are 33-6 over the past three seasons, with back-to-back-to-back 11-win campaigns, the only three 11-win seasons in school history. Of course it can always be better, but that’s the next step to take, which is a lot more feasible than it used to be. For those who just have to complain about something (hold for shocked silence), there is the lack of SEC titles. But there weren’t any during 1-21, either.
IN-DEFENSE-ABLE: Yeah, it got straightened out, but what was going on defensively in the first half? There was no mystery that Wisconsin liked to run and was going to run. USC kept trotting out the same four-man front, sometimes with a spur on the end of the line, and played linebackers 7 yards off the ball. Did not compute. It reminded me of what an old coach used to say: “There’s no such thing as an All-American tailback. There is such a thing as (censored) tackling.”
STICKUM: USC wisely tried to run out the clock and then Brandon Wilds fumbled to give the Badgers another chance. Again, everything turned out fine, but
END OF THE LINE?: Obviously, talents like Jadeveon Clowney don’t come along every day, much less come along an hour up the road. He was part of a great line of talent, much of it in-state, that came to Columbia. Now that he’s gone, can USC hope to get that lucky again? Recruiting is going well, and the Gamecocks are still pulling in major South Carolina prospects. I guess it’s an open-ended question, one that can’t be answered until the next national No. 1 guy comes along within a three-hour radius.
BROKEN: Nothing from punting. Nothing from kick return (especially when Pharoh Cooper ran into Sidney Rhodes while trying to get ahead of him). Nothing from kickoffs, except a 91-yard return for a touchdown just when the game was thought to be over, and a stiff-arm to Kane Whitehurst that nearly launched his chin and chinstrap into Vincent Smith airspace. A bad hold on a PAT and a run from Patrick Fish that got him dropped quicker than Brussel sprouts off the supper table. These problems go back years, and it’s quite clear that they won’t be an easy fix. USC special teams is just not good. I don’t know that there is a solution. Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState