ORLANDO, Fla. — South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton cupped his ears and glared toward a quiet Wisconsin section. Running back Melvin Gordon made the short walk back to the Badgers’ sideline after his fumble, his program’s fourth consecutive bowl loss sealed.
In time, the haunting, familiar, "S-E-C!" chant rang from South Carolina fans across the way, before two kneels by quarterback Connor Shaw made official Wisconsin’s latest January miss.
It was in these moments, with about a minute left deep in South Carolina territory, that the scramble for coach Gary Andersen’s team had ended for good. This New Year’s Day setting was far from the Rose Bowl’s glow, but overcast skies Wednesday afternoon above Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium provided an all-too-familiar feeling: Another loss to start another year, this time a 34-24 defeat to Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks in the Capital One Bowl, and more reasons to ponder why.
"I don’t think there was a momentum shift, where all of the sudden (it was like), ‘Hey, we’re not playing well. We’re not playing hard,’" Andersen said. "To me, that’s where the game shifts. Quite simply, they made some plays down the field in the throwing game."
South Carolina did precisely that, with Shaw’s magnificent dual-threat skill. He threw for 312 yards, completing all but three of 25 attempts, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The gritty senior signal-caller also finished with 47 yards on 16 carries with one score. He was terrific. Wisconsin had no answer.
Shaw was masterful, but this was a winnable game for the men on the opposite sideline. The Badgers never punted. They ran for 293 yards, 10 more than their season average and the most against South Carolina this season. Quarterback Joel Stave was no Shaw, but he managed the game well before jogging into the locker room late in the third quarter with a right shoulder injury.
Pick any number of sequences that went against the guys in white, and it’s easy to make a case that the Big Ten Conference could have celebrated two victories over the SEC in Florida on this day.
*A botched fake field-goal pass by holder Drew Meyer in the first quarter.
*Earning three points instead of seven early in the third, after the Badgers enjoyed first-and-10 at the Gamecocks 13-yard line.
*A 42-yard field-goal attempt by Jack Russell that sailed wide right early in the third, after a fumble by Shaw gave Wisconsin possession at South Carolina’s 31.
*A failed fourth-and-1 run by Gordon early in the fourth at the Gamecocks 26, with the Badgers trailing 20-17.
"I definitely think it was a winnable game," said Stave, who completed 9 of 13 passes for 80 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. "That’s the goal — to give yourself a shot at the end. We definitely had that. Again, just missed opportunities, things we could have done here and there. When you’re playing a good team, it comes down to a few plays. They made those plays in the end."
The Gamecocks were the more efficient team on this afternoon, though in reality, little separates them from the losing locker room. The Badgers, for much of the day, delivered their ground-and-pound ethos to an athletic defensive line that includes multiple players with NFL-worthy talent, headlined by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
This was no instance in which a plodding offense from the North struggled with SEC speed and physicality. Gordon ripped South Carolina for 143 yards rushing, and James White added 107, both part of a methodical display that at times resembled a snowplow pushing through an uncleared road.
"We played well, but at the end of the day, it was execution," linebacker Chris Borland said. "It was a lot of different things. It wasn’t one thing over and over again. It’s simple. You’ve got to play better to win than we did today."
That bitter reality, in recent seasons, has become an early January speed bump for a proud Wisconsin program. The site and opponent changed, but so much about this conclusion felt like those anticlimactic ends at the Rose Bowl the past three years: A two-point loss to TCU in 2011, a seven-point loss to Oregon in 2012, a six-point loss to Stanford in 2013.
"It didn’t roll our way," safety Tanner McEvoy said.
Each season is different, and Wisconsin has gone from Bret Bielema to Barry Alvarez (for one game) to Andersen since its bowl losing streak began. It’s hard to find relevant connections between four different January disappointments, but the result Wednesday again showed how thin the line can be between victory and defeat for unfamiliar foes, especially when top-tier teams from power conferences meet.
In the postgame analysis, in a large room far removed from South Carolina’s celebration under light rain, Borland, a senior, tried to articulate how his program can start winning bowl games against quality opponents again. Wisconsin has dropped six of its last seven games to close each season, a puzzling development.
"I don’t know if it’s one thing," he said. "We’ve played well in bowl losses. I don’t think today was a great performance. But it’s not due to a lack of preparation or effort. We played hard. We prepared well. I’m not sure."
Most times, it’s the small things — a missed field goal here, a failed fourth-down conversion there, that lead to the letdown. Minor missteps become major issues if there are enough to cause trouble.
By now, after another January day with a dreary result, that’s a lesson the Badgers know too well.