MADISON, Wis. — The narrative for two months surrounding Wisconsin’s football team was if it could win its final seven games, a BCS bowl berth was attainable. The Badgers, of course, wrecked that opportunity with a 31-24 loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale, making such discussions a moot point.
It turns out, however, that even a victory wouldn’t have been enough.
Michigan State upset Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten championship Saturday night to secure a spot in the Rose Bowl, while Ohio State dropped from a national title contender to the Orange Bowl. With the Big Ten sending the maximum two teams from one conference to the BCS, the best Wisconsin could have done regardless of the Penn State outcome was a spot in the Capital One Bowl.
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And that’s exactly where the Badgers landed when bowl announcements were made Sunday night.
No. 19 Wisconsin (9-3) will play No. 8 South Carolina (10-2) in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 at noon CT in Orlando, Fla. It will mark the first SEC opponent for the Badgers in six years, since a New Year’s Day game against Tennessee in the 2008 Outback Bowl.
For Wisconsin, it provides an opportunity to help erase the sting of its senior day letdown, in which Penn State scored 24 unanswered points to stun the Badgers in the second half.
“I think I speak for all the seniors when I say that was it was just a tough loss,” Badgers nose guard Beau Allen said Sunday night. “It was really hard to wrap your head around something like that and get over it. . . . I think nothing can change the disappointment that we feel after that loss at Penn State.
“Obviously, we’ve got a big-time game and a big-time opponent coming up. We’re not even really focused on the past. We’re not going to dwell on that at all.”
If the Penn State loss didn’t provide enough motivation for Wisconsin players, there’s also this: the Badgers have not won a bowl game since a 20-14 victory against Miami (Fla.) in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl. As most Wisconsin fans know, the Badgers came up empty in three straight trips to the Rose Bowl.
For players, three consecutive bowl losses has been a difficult pill to swallow. In fact, senior linebacker Chris Borland is the only player on the team’s current roster to have played in a bowl game Wisconsin won.
“It’s tough to play with guys for four or five years and then go out and let it end in tears and sadness that you didn’t get that last win,” Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward said. “You definitely want to end your career (with a win) and end it with guys you’ve made so many amazing memories with.”
Added Allen: “I think we definitely want to make a statement. We have a really talented senior class that has a lot of wins over the past four or five years, but we kind of failed to get it done in the postseason. And we know that, so we want to go out on top.”
Snapping that bowl game losing streak will be no easy task against a team that finished second in the SEC East.
The Gamecocks won five consecutive games to close the regular season, including a 27-24 victory against SEC championship participant Missouri. South Carolina lost 41-30 at Georgia on Sept. 7 and 23-21 at Tennessee on Oct. 19.
Quarterback Connor Shaw completed 61.0 percent of his passes for 2,135 yards with 21 touchdowns and one interception. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier called him the best quarterback in school history following the team’s victory against Clemson in the regular-season finale. Tailback Mike Davis, meanwhile, leads the team in rushing yards (1,134) and rushing touchdowns (11).
“It’s a tremendous matchup,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “We’ve both shown that we’re very capable of playing at a very high level week in and week out, throughout the season. It’s a great bowl game for us for so many reasons. It’s a great reward for our kids and it’s an honor for us to be selected to compete in this game.
“You sit back in your career as a player or as a coach and the opportunity to play in a bowl game on Jan. 1 is something that you’ll never forget, I promise you. We’re just very honored to be part of it.”
The game will pit two of the top defenses in the country against each other. Wisconsin ranks sixth in scoring defense (14.8 points per game), while South Carolina ranks tied for 14th (20.0 points).
Defensively, the Gamecocks’ most well known player is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, whose monstrous backfield hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in last year’s Outback Bowl raised his profile substantially across college football. It was a play Allen joked he saw “every day on SportsCenter.” This season, Clowney recorded 35 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
“It will be a good measuring stick to see where I’m at,” said Badgers tight end Brian Wozniak of his blocking skills. “I think it’s not just him on that defensive side. I think they’ve got a couple of good guys and just looking at the whole team, they’ve got athletes and it will be fun to do our athletes against their athletes.”