Steve Spurrier and his 10-2 Gamecocks go for their third consecutive eleven-win season when they take on first year head coach Gary Anderson’s 9-3 Wisconsin Badgers at 1 o’clock on New Year’s Day, in the Capital One Bowl, in sunny Orlando. Spurrier hopes to continue his run of success against the Big-10 while Wisconsin tries to finish the season on a high note, in what many consider one of the most exciting match-ups this bowl season.
The Gamecocks are going for a turkey—that’s three strikes in bowling for those of you that don’t have too much time on your hands—while the Badgers are looking to end a run of three straight bowl losses, all in Pasadena. For head coach Gary Anderson though, this is a fresh start.
Anderson picked up right where long-time head Coach Bret Bielema left off, playing a physical, Big-10 brand of football. The key to their success this year has been, without a doubt, their beastly two-headed rushing attack of Melvin Gordon and James White. Both backs rushed over 1,300 yards this year—1,466 and 1,337 respectively—and have a combined 25 touchdowns. The Gamecocks have faced physical running backs this year, but linebacker Kaiwan Lewis contends, “their running backs are different in that they have great vision, if you step out of your gap they’re going to hit it. They have great vision and great patience. You have to play your gap and own your gap” (per Gamecockcentral).
In addition to being good runners between the tackles, they both have breakaway speed and season long runs of at least 80 yards—Gordon’s season long is 80 and White’s is 93. Needless to say, the first priority for Lorenzo “Whammy” Ward and his unit will be slowing down a rushing attack that averages 283 yards per game, good for eighth in the country.
That being said, Wisconsin is advertised as a run first second and third team, when in reality, their play calling is as balanced as Steve Spurrier’s. The Badgers have attempted 329 passes this season and have 514 rushing attempts as a team, while the Gamecocks have attempted 357 passes to 503 runs. The biggest difference is that Wisconsin is averaging 6.6 yards per carry while the Gamecocks are averaging 4.9, still a respectable number.
Sophomore quarterback Joel Stave is completing 61% of his passes on the year (199-323) for 2,414 yards and 20 touchdowns, which is comparable to Connor Shaw’s stat line. Stave is nowhere near as mobile as Shaw is, however, and has thrown 12 interceptions on the year. While a 5:3 TD: INT ratio is nothing to write home about, this is still a potent passing attack that is often overlooked.
On the other end of Stave’s passes about 33% of the time is the 6-foot-2 senior, Jared Abbrederis, who has 73 catches on the year for 7 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards. He has accounted for nearly a third of his team’s receptions and touchdowns and over 40% of his team’s receiving yards. Senior Jacob Pederson is the only other receiver on the team with more than 500 yards receiving.
Joel Stave has only attempted 30 or more passes in four games this year, three of which were losses to Arizona State (30) Ohio State (34) and Penn State (53). The takeaway? Force Wisconsin into the passing game. The best way to do that is to take an early lead make the Badgers play catch-up. In each of their three losses, Wisconsin was held to an average of 154 yards on the ground. Numbers never lie.
Defensively, this game will be decided by the South Carolina front seven. Deke Adams defensive line is arguably one of the most talented and respected in the country, led by future NFL star and Richland County speed demon Jadeveon Clowney and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, who leads the team in sacks. This group though, is more recognized for their ability to rush the passer, not stop the run, although the South Carolina defense finished second in the SEC in rush defense, allowing 142 yards per game on the ground.
Wisconsin will not be the most explosive offense that this defense has seen this year, nor will it be among the more difficult games to scheme. On the contrary, Wisconsin makes no secret about how they want to run their offense. That being said, this style of offense will test the defensive line and linebackers like no other game this year. Having a full year of SEC play under their belts, it seems unfair to still characterize this linebacking unit as “young and inexperienced”. They have had their struggles this year, but overall have been a pleasant surprise, particularly freshman Skai Moore, who leads the team in tackles with 51, 3.5 for loss, and also nabbed two interceptions, one in the finale against rival Clemson.
The key for the defense is winning first and second down. If White and Gordon are able to pick up yards on first and second down, giving them third-and-short, the Gamecocks could be in for a long day. Winning the early downs though and forcing the Badgers into third-and-passing distances where South Carolina can unleash Clowney and force Joel Stave to make rushed or errant throws will give the Gamecocks the best chance to earn their third straight 11-win season and third consecutive bowl win.
Offensively, South Carolina has enjoyed unprecedented success, averaging a school record 453 yards per game. This production is thanks in no small part to the services of the greatest quarterback to ever don the garnet and black, Connor Shaw.
The senior from Flowery Branch is enjoying a phenomenal year in which he is completing 61% of his passes for greater than 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. The most impressive and important number in his stat line however, is the big number “1” in the INT column. Not only does Shaw make play after play with his legs and lead the Gamecocks to unthinkable comebacks (like his heroic, three-touchdown effort in Columbia, Missouri earlier this year), but he also does not lose any games. This may seem like a silly thing to say a player, but with only one interception all year, he protects the ball and can seemingly do no wrong when it comes to putting his team in a position to win. Winner. Warrior. Leader. Shaw is all of these, and many consider him one of the most underrated quarterbacks in college football. With a 17-0 home record, it’s hard to argue.
Shaw’s supporting cast is not too shabby either. The SEC’s fourth leading rusher, Mike Davis, joins him in the backfield. Davis rushed for 1,194 yards on the year on 194 carries and will be itching to make an impact in this game. Davis was hampered by nagging injuries down the stretch and missed the Coastal Carolina entirely, and after having a month the heal up, he should be poised to have a huge game on New Year’s Day.
The 2A and 2B running backs Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are good backs in their own right, and should see some action against a physical Wisconsin front. The two have a combined 461 yards and four touchdowns on only 100 carries. At 6-foot-2, Wilds is more of a bruiser, while Carson serves as a good change of pace back.
For the first time, perhaps since the days when Sidney Rice and Kenny McKinley graced the Gamecock sideline, the South Carolina receiving corps is deep and has the ability to truly affect the outcome of a game. Even with an unfortunate knee injury keeping speedster and second-leading receiver Damiere Byrd out of action in the bowl game, the Gamecocks have plenty of receivers ready to step up as well as two excellent pass catching tight ends in Busta Anderson and Jarrell Adams to bolster the passing attack.
Look for specialist and athlete Pharoh Cooper to have an impact on this game in some way, shape, or form. Midway through the year, Coach Spurrier decided that this young man needed to have the ball in his hands in any way possible, so in addition to having him return kicks and punts, he was put in charge of running the wildcat. Cooper has exhibited his versatility by catching, rushing for, and throwing for a touchdown this year.
Balance will be the key in this game. Establishing Mike Davis and co early will set up play action and the deep ball for Connor Shaw, who is also guaranteed to pick up at least one crucial third down that will leaving the Badger sideline doing a collective face-palm.
Wisconsin’s defense was very stingy for the majority of the year, allowing a paltry 14.8 points on average, but in their three losses, they gave up 31, 31, and 32. The Gamecocks will not be treated to the feast that the Arkansas game earlier this year was, nor will this be the stingiest defense that they have faced all year.
With the exception of Damiere Byrd—and Ahmad Christian, who transferred—the Gamecocks will be as healthy as they have been all year and will be riding the momentum of a five-game winning streak, while Wisconsin is coming off of an upset loss at home against Penn State. Too, the Gamecocks have not turned the ball over since the Missouri game, and during that same stretch, the defense has forced 15 turnovers.
These two teams are evenly matched and this game should be every bit as exciting as advertised. If Wisconsin establishes the run and controls the line of scrimmage, they win; if not, the Gamecocks win. It is a simple formula on paper that may mean absolutely nothing come game day. More than anything, the post-season boils down to mistakes and heroics, in which case, a betting man would have to favor the any team led by Connor Shaw, but maybe this is the year that South Carolina’s luck runs out.
In a push, wily veterans and clutch stars, not a game plan, decide the outcome, and in that case do not expect Connor Shaw to lose his last game in a Gamecock uniform.