Gary Andersen probably spoke prematurely when he referred to this year’s Wisconsin football team in mid-November as not simply good but great. The Badgers had rallied from two early season losses to win six consecutive games at the time. Ultimately, however, they failed to crack double-digit victories despite two more chances.
No Big Ten title. No BCS bowl game. No bowl victory.
No. 9 South Carolina made sure of the latter by edging No. 19 Wisconsin 34-24 on Wednesday afternoon in the Capital One Bowl. The Badgers, who lost to Penn State to close the regular season, finished the year 9-4 in Andersen’s first season as coach.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from the team’s season finale:
Quarterback questions will persist all offseason
Badgers quarterback Joel Stave had an opportunity to solidify himself as the starting quarterback of the future at Wisconsin with a solid performance that led to a bowl victory. Instead, Stave was typically inconsistent and finished his day completing 10 of 15 passes for 84 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also suffered a right shoulder injury when he was leveled after failing to slide on a quarterback run.
That left sixth-year senior Curt Phillips to man the ship in the fourth quarter. Phillips, who had thrown two passes all season, was intercepted twice.
Andersen has talked for weeks about the need for Wisconsin to develop more consistency in the passing game, and in many respects, his comments were aimed primarily at Stave. With spring practices just around the corner, it will be interesting to see who emerges as the team’s best quarterback. Stave will have to compete with Bart Houston and Tanner McEvoy, who will move back to quarterback after playing safety this season. Throw in dual-threat freshman D.J. Gillins — who will arrive on campus for the spring semester — and the quarterback battle will be difficult.
Stave’s overall numbers were solid, but he threw 13 interceptions this season and was simply too inconsistent on several other throws. If Stave doesn’t improve, he could spend his next two seasons at Wisconsin watching from the sideline on game days.
Wisconsin had the best running back duo in the country
Maybe you knew this before the Capital One Bowl, but the fact James White and Melvin Gordon dominated on the ground against a quality SEC opponent further proved the point. Both players eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark Wednesday, and they set the NCAA record for rushing yards by teammates in a single season.
It’s hard to believe Wisconsin could lose Montee Ball, a one-time Heisman Trophy finalist and the reigning Doak Walker Award winner, yet be even better in the backfield. But that’s exactly what happened this season.
Gordon finished with 1,609 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, while White capped his senior year with 1,444 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. The 3,053 combined rushing yards was better than the combination of Ball and White a year ago, when they rushed for 2,636 yards and 34 touchdowns.
The Badgers’ pass defense needs work
It seemed as though every time Wisconsin faced a team with an above-average quarterback, the Badgers’ secondary struggled to handle accurate deep passes. That trend continued Wednesday against South Carolina, as Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw torched the Badgers. Having Bruce Ellington and Shaq Roland make acrobatic catches in traffic certainly didn’t help Wisconsin.
Shaw, who threw one interception all season, finished the game 22 of 25 for 312 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed his first pass to Ellington for 20 yards, which served as a precursor of things to come in the explosive plays department.
Shaw also completed passes of 39 yards to Ellington for a touchdown, 32 to Ellington, 22 to Ellington, 22 to Ellington for a touchdown, 49 to Roland and 33 more to Roland.
You’re going to have a tough time winning football games when you allow seven passes of at least 20 yards to the other team. Ellington finished with six catches for 140 yards with two touchdowns. He also threw a 9-yard touchdown to Shaw on a reverse throwback play. Roland tallied six catches for 112 yards with a touchdown.
Somebody — anybody — better learn to catch some passes next season
Jared Abbrederis was the heart and soul of this wide receiver crew for the past two seasons. But he’ll be playing in the NFL next season, which means the Badgers need to find a capable wide receiver to fill his place. Abbrederis finished his career tied for the all-time program record for receptions with 202, joining Brandon Williams at the top of the list.
There may not be one guy ready to step into Abbrederis’ role, so even a receiver by committee approach may be used. But the situation looks bleak in the immediate aftermath of Wisconsin’s bowl game loss.
Wisconsin caught 16 passes during Wednesday’s game. Only three of those catches came from players that will be returning next season. Abbrederis (five catches, 35 yards), tight end Jacob Pedersen (three catches, 50 yards), White (two catches, eight yards), wide receiver Jeff Duckworth (two catches, seven yards, one touchdown) and tight end Brian Wozniak (one catch, seven yards), all have now used up their eligibility.
Running back Melvin Gordon, who recently announced he would return for his junior season and bypass the NFL Draft, will probably become the go-to pass-catching tailback with White gone. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Rob Wheelwright and Alex Erickson will need to become bigger factors at receiver. Otherwise, 2014 could be a long season.
Wisconsin’s bowl game skid continues
Was Wisconsin a great team this year? The answer, after yet another bowl game defeat, is no. The Badgers had an opportunity to make a national statement against one of the best teams in college football. Instead, they found themselves in the same position they have been in for four consecutive New Year’s bowl games — with a loss.
This game did not come with quite the spectacle of the Rose Bowl, where Wisconsin lost the past three seasons. But it will hurt just the same. At some point, Wisconsin will need to win a big-time bowl game to be considered a truly great team.