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Saturday, December 09, 2023

Football: Breaking down the Capital One Bowl loss

It’s been a couple days since the dust from the Capital One Bowl settled, and it’s never too early for a little reflection.

As sports fans, sometimes the hardest thing to do is find a diamond in the proverbial rough of a loss, especially in a big game like this one. And while there were some (re: many) things to mourn, there were also a lot of things that went right.

Let’s start with the good things:

Run Game

Perhaps the Badgers’ largest takeaway from the Capital One Bowl is the fact that their run game can match up against anyone in the country. South Carolina boasted arguably the best defensive player in the country in Jadaveon Clowney, and Wisconsin was able to effectively seal him off for the majority of the game. Sure, Clowney was able to bust through at times, but the difference between a good team and a great team is the ability to prevent players of that caliber from being true difference makers.

James White and Melvin Gordon were able to combine for 254 yards on the day, a total that was the cherry on top of a 3,053-yard season for the duo, an FBS record.

Playing a large part in UW’s vaunted run game this season was fullback Derek Watt, whose lead blocking ability is often overlooked. Wisconsin looked best Wednesday on run plays up the middle, with either Watt or a pulling guard to take out a linebacker, allowing either Gordon or White to reach the second level without being touched.

Defensive playcalling

Conservative play calling runs through defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s veins. There were games this season in which the Badgers blitzed what seemed like once a half.

That all changed in the Capital One Bowl after Aranda rolled out a dynamic, shifting defense meant to challenge South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Mike Davis. While Davis was effectively corralled with 49 rushing yards, Shaw passed for 312 yards, making the Wisconsin secondary look silly for a majority of the second half. More on that in a bit.

Special teams

After a shaky season of special teams Wisconsin finally found its groove, holding the Gamecocks to an average of just 13 yards on kickoff returns and recording the team’s first kick return for a score in three years.

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All of this isn’t to say that things didn’t go wrong. The 2013 season will forever be remembered for the way it ended. This group of outstanding seniors didn’t get the sendoff they deserved, both on senior day against Penn State and in the Capital One Bowl.

“Good, but not good enough” might as well be the Badgers’ catchphrase this season. Talent and drive are one thing, but under real pressure Wisconsin’s playmakers were few and far between.

Secondary breakdown

The problem, unfortunately for the Wisconsin secondary, begins and ends with the exceptional play of the Gamecocks’ quarterback and receivers. Shaw threaded the needle on multiple occasions, and wide receiver Bruce Ellington made several ridiculous plays near the end of the third period to give South Carolina the lead heading into the final frame.

That isn’t to excuse the secondary play of Wisconsin.

The Gamecocks’ 312 passing yards singlehandedly propelled them to victory, and it was also in large part due to a breakdown in Wisconsin’s secondary.

At times, safety blitzes hung the cornerbacks out to dry, especially 5’9” freshman Sojourn Shelton. Multiple times he was simply overmatched and the Badgers paid the price, allowing several long plays.

Redshirt senior Dezmen Southward failed in coverage several times as well, losing sight of the ball and allowing receivers to get behind him. It was uncharacteristic for the senior, who was honorable mention All-Big Ten.

Quarterback meltdown

I’ve said it before, but I honestly believe Joel Stave has to get that first interception under his belt to shake off the jitters and settle into the pocket. He’s thrown an interception in almost every game, and he just looks more comfortable afterword.

In the third quarter Stave made a careless mistake by turning into a hit with his throwing shoulder and paid the price, leaving the game in sixth-year senior Curt Phillips’ hands.

Between the pair, the Badgers were 16-for-26 with 117 yards through the air, not a great total by any means. With their backs against the wall, neither quarterback was very effective, converting on just 6 of 14 third down opportunities.

The Capital One Bowl, it seems, came down to passing. South Carolina was able to throw the ball while the Badgers weren’t, and ultimately, it made all the difference.

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