by Rex Shield
The Capital One Bowl might as well be named after Wisconsin because it seems the Badgers either go to Pasadena or Orlando every single year. In all seriousness, head coach Gary Andersen's squad will face its toughest test of the season (yes, that means I think Ohio State is not very good), as they square off against the ole ball coach and the South Carolina Gamecocks. In my eyes, a win would solidify a solid first-year season for Andersen and his staff; a loss would leave a chink in this year's squad armor (hope I don't get fired for this).
Wisconsin QB -- Joel Stave
After a decently strong redshirt freshman campaign, people like myself thought that Stave would be a good enough game manager to complement the duo in the backfield, but I didn't anticipate this much of a regression. While the redshirt sophomore completed 62 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, he threw an interception in every game in all but three games (ASU, Illinois, and Indiana) and posted a raw QBR of 51.8 with an adjusted QBR of 55.8, good for 82nd and 75th in the country, collectively. To put it simply, he has been on a collision course with embarrassment for the better of the 2013 season. Not to mention, his misses have been one of two scenarios: an overthrow or at the receiver's feet.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig needs to put Stave in situations to succeed, which will equate to not throwing the ball over 25-plus times, as he did against Penn State (he posted an abysmal QBR of 39.6 in the loss). Ludwig needs to allow Stave to take shots down the field with wide receiver Jared Abbrederis over the top to force South Carolina's defense to respect his arm. At the end of the day, Stave is not good enough to vault Wisconsin to victory so it will be crucial for him to avoid the ugly turnovers and not hang on to the ball in the pocket for what sometimes feels like eternity. But before this turns into a Stave-is-a-really-bad-quarterback analysis, it's important to note that he has shown up in big conference games, specifically the past two conference road openers against Nebraska in 2012 (12/23, 214 yards, 1 TD) and Ohio State in 2013 (20/34, 295 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT). Do I think Wednesday sparks this type of performance? No, but would I be surprised? Sort of, but he has still proven he can keep the Badgers in games on the big stage.
South Carolina QB -- Connor Shaw
Toughness. Grit. A will to win. These are only some of the adjectives to describe no.5 and his statistics over his career have proven it, as he is the winningest quarterback in school history with a record of 26-5, including 17-0 at home. His adjusted QBR of 76.1 sits 23rd in the country to go along with 2,135 yards for 21 TDs and one INT (no, that is not a typo). He also has the ability to hurt the Badgers with his feet, accumulating 511 yards on the ground with five touchdowns. He's neither flashy nor conventional, but when the Gamecocks need a play, he makes it. The key for the front seven will be to get ample pressure on him with the use of different stunts to confuse an offensive line that has allowed 22 sacks on the season (1.83 sacks/game), tied for 51st.
If Shaw is forced out of the pocket, Wisconsin's defensive ends -- particularly Brendan Kelly and Tyler Dippel -- need to contain because the more time he has, the more opportunity there is to have a secondary blunder.
Edge: South Carolina
Wisconsin Backfield -- James White/Melvin Gordon/Corey Clement
Amidst a 1,000-plus yard season his freshman year and a 1,337-yard 2013 season with 13 touchdowns, running back James White may be one of the more underrated UW running backs in recent history. While he does not possess any sort of power in his running style, his ability to evade tacklers will serve advantageous against a South Carolina defense that is loaded with speed at all levels. When I talked with ESPN Big Ten's Adam Rittenberg last spring, he noted White's capability to be a threat out of the backfield, which is something I felt Ludwig would need to utilize to get as much production out of White as possible. It's safe to say this has been accomplished in 2013 with White being second on the team in receptions (37) with two scores. This options needs to be at an immense premium because 1) Stave basically has two options in the passing game (more on this later) and 2) it will force the Gamecocks to not strictly focus on those options. I would like to see White get the ball on screen passes, especially possibly a delayed screen, given his solid pass-blocking ability can be used as a decoy.
When it is all said and done, redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon may be the best running back to ever come through the Wisconsin program based on his combination of brute strength and breakaway speed. With that being said, Ludwig needs to feed Gordon when he has the hot hand; same goes with White. All too often, especially against Penn State, Gordon would gain a good chunk of yards then Ludwig would try and get cute by throwing the football. Simply put, he can't make that same mistake again Wednesday. Gordon has announced he will return for his junior year, making it all for certain next year will be his final year on campus. Given this, it's time for Gordon to be the prime-time back against the Gamecocks.
Also, I am not sure if the Badgers can rush for their game average (283.0, 8th), but the key will be running the ball up the middle. This is another reason why I think Gordon should get a majority of the carries. As we saw in the 2011 Rose Bowl game, White really struggled getting yards off tackle with TCU's speed on the outside and South Carolina possesses that and then some. One last note: While I think freshman Corey Clement is going to follow in the footsteps of the great running backs to don the red and white, I would be shocked if he saw the field.
South Carolina Backfield -- Mike Davis
The sophomore running back's future looks bright in a South Carolina uniform, as he had a breakout 2013 season, rushing for 1,134 yards for 11 touchdowns with a 5.8 average. In fact, 104 yards/game average ranks fourth in the SEC and vaulted Bleacher Report to write that Wednesday's matchup “could be a Heisman Launch Party.” Not to mention, he has totaled seven 100-yard games and that total could be more if he wasn't held back by various injuries throughout the season, causing him to see minimal time in the last two games against Florida and Clemson. While I would bet all the money in my bank account (I'm a poor college student) Davis will be the starting back for the Gamecocks Wednesday, it is uncertain that he will be 100%. "I can't tell you that," Davis said.
The problem for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's gameplan is not just stopping Davis on the ground, but also in the passing game. He sits third on the team in receptions with 32 for 342 yards. The key will be tackling him in space and not allowing him to get to the second level because if he is able to evade one tackler, he has the breakaway speed to go the distance every time he touches the ball. It is largely a one-man show in the backfield, but the Gamecocks offense boasts some viable options further down on the depth chart. Shon Carson and Brandon Wilds, who was in competition for the starting job in fall camp, have both only eclipsed 200 yards on the season, but they have found their way in the end zone with Carson totaling one touchdown and Wilds three touchdowns.
Like I mentioned earlier, the cupboard is rather bare for Stave in terms of offensive weapons on the outside. Of course, the minimal weapons he has are good and should see themselves playing on Sundays next year. Former walk-on wide receiver Jared Abbrederis is one of three receivers in program history to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season and his ability to stretch the defense is something that will be need to be at a premium. Nevertheless, “Abby” has never shied away from superior competition, especially earlier this season against Ohio State and NFL-bound cornerback Bradley Roby. However, he has been known to drop rather easy passes and these will need to be avoided as much as possible, especially on third down, which have been prevalent more than one would like.
Tight end Jacob Pedersen has made his name known for catches across the middle on curl patterns and short posts; in other words, he does a great job of getting open in space. This, of course, feels like it only comes three to four times per game (in fact, he averages three catches/game). Why this is the case I have no idea, but besides his playmaking ability in the passing game, his run-blocking ability is second to none and will be especially useful in chipping defense end Jadeveon Clowney. More so, if my memory serves me correctly, Ludwig has severely underutilized the tight end screen this year. Whether it is with Pedersen or tight end Sam Arneson, who I think is going to be a stud the next couple of years, Wednesday would be an ideal time to include it in the playbook.
While the two aforementioned options have kept the passing game afloat, someone besides them needs to step up if the offense is going to have success. No offense to wide receiver Jordan Frederick, but he is more of an option in the run game (i.e. he's a helluva blocker) than in the passing game. Save a game-saving punt return for a touchdown last year against Utah State, wide receiver Kenzel Doe has been invisible, given his stone hands. Keep an eye out for wide receiver Alex Erickson. He followed Abby's walk-on trek to UW and Wednesday could serve as a game a break-out performance that vaults him to next year's no.1 wide receiver.
South Carolina WR/TE
We all know SC has speed and the wide receiving unit emulates that with Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd, and Shaq Roland. Ellington, who is still undecided on whether or not to enter the 2013 NFL Draft, leads the group with 43 receptions for 635 yards for 6 touchdowns while Byrd is second with 33 receptions for 575 yards with four touchdowns. While Roland is fifth on the team in receptions (19), he has totaled five touchdowns through the air. Also, junior receiver Nick Jones has only collected 256 yards, but he is tied for second with five touchdowns. Needless to say, Shaw has plenty of weapons at his disposal and I think they might have a field day against a vulnerable Wisconsin secondary.
However, contrary to the Badgers, the ole ball coach does not utilize his tight ends at all, with tight end Rory Anderson not recording a touchdown this season. Still, he has accumulated 17 catches for 235 yards. It is somewhat of a catch-22 because if the secondary decides to jam the receivers at the line of scrimmage, they possess the speed to get to the second level easily. Yet, if they resort to their typical coverage of giving receivers a comfortable cushion of five to seven yards, bubble screens may be aplenty Wednesday.
Overall, the group's athleticism is marked by Ellington, who averaged 10 points/game for Frank Martin on the hardwood last year. The corners better have their oxygen masks ready to go from the moment the first whistle sounds.
Edge: South Carolina
What a difference a year makes, eh? Under the direction of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (I'm not afraid to say that he has been the best D coordinator the Badgers have had for as long as I can remember), the defense has vaulted themselves into the conversation of one of the best defenses not only in the conference, but the entire country, as they are sixth in yards allowed/game (101.3) and have only given up seven rushing touchdowns all year. As we all know, the defense is led by part-man, part-freak linebacker Chris Borland, who continues to amaze me game-in and game-out. However, if Wisconsin is going to stop Davis and Shaw on the ground, it will be crucial for the non-stars to make an impact.
A matchup that I believe will serve advantageous for the Badgers is one between nose tackle Beau Allen and first-year starting center Cody Waldrop. While Allen did not have any gaudy stats in 2013 (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss), he shines when he is able to get a solid push on the line of scrimmage, allowing the second level of the defense to clean up the tackles in the backfield. With this being said, Wisconsin needs to be a sound tackling team both at the line of scrimmage and beyond and they have been one of the best defenses at doing just that, only allowing 30 plays of 10-plus yards on the season (2nd) and four plays of 20-plus yards (1st). Also, if the defense can force the Gamecocks into third and long, the advantage lies with Wisconsin, as they have held their opponents to a third-down conversation rate of roughly 30 percent (5th) while South Carolina's offense is 43rd in the country with a conversation rate of roughly 44 percent.
Simply put, the defense will have a perfect opportunity to wreak havoc on Shaw in rushing him with the offensive line surrendering 1.83 sacks/game. Plus, as we saw against Northwestern when Aranda has extra time for preparation, this front seven is scary good, at least for Wisconsin standards.
The secondary is another story. Save for true freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton, the rest of the unit looks lost out there and have struggled mightily against speed-first wide receivers like Ohio State's Philly Brown (8 catches, 85 yards with 2 TDs against UW) and Penn State's Allen Robinson (8 catches, 122 yards). Will Wednesday's contest be a different story? I tend not to think so. Safeties Tanner McEvoy and Dezman Southward are going to have to bring their 'A' game because, South Carolina's wide receivers have been known to leave the defenders in the dust more often than not. Still, I will give credit where credit is due and that is to the job Bill Busch and Ben Strickland have done in improving this unit as the season has progressed. Plus, the unit is not as bad as we all think -- at least statistically speaking -- as they rank 12th with an average of 192.7 pass yards/game. The key will be not having any mental mistakes in coverage, especially the safeties allowing SC's receivers to get behind them.
South Carolina Defense
I'm not sure if you have heard of him or not, but South Carolina's front four boasts one of the most-talked-about-but-hasn't-proved-much-in-2013 defensive end Javedeon Clowney. Clowney burst onto the scene after a dominant freshman campaign, including his vicious hit in last year's Outback Bowl against Michigan. However, the front four has talent other than Clowney. First-team All-SEC and second-team All-American defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles is a force to be reckoned, as he has registered 36 total tackles with 10 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. However, as a whole, the front four has been very susceptible against the run. The unit has allowed an average of 142.25 rush yards/game, good for 33rd in the country. More so, the team's downfall in their losses has been to no surprise, as they have allowed 186.5 yards/game on the ground in their two losses. The key for the Wisconsin offensive line will simply be their ability to get a solid push in the trenches because SC's linebackers are nothing to write home about, save second-team All-SEC Sharrod Golightly, who has registered 44 tackles on the season. That equates to a lousy average of roughly four tackles per game. Also, the front seven has struggled mightily in getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with 24 sacks on the year (tied for 66th) so the offensive line should have no trouble in keeping Stave upright, as the unit has only allowed 1.25 sacks/game (21st).
The Gamecocks secondary should be able to have a field day against the less-than-superior Stave, as their 202.8 pass yards/game average has placed them 19th in the country. By looking at the stats, the secondary has a home-run mentality, as they have accumulated 15 interceptions (tied for 31st) with three of those coming against one of the best NFL-ready quarterbacks in Clemson's Tahj Boyd. On the flip side, they do not get their hands in the passing at all with only 28 pass deflections on the season, ranking them an abysmal 106th in the country. The lone star in the secondary is second-team All-SEC cornerback Victor Hampton, who has three interceptions and nine pass breakups on the year. Again, if Ludwig tries to get cute with it and throw the ball more times than needed coupled with Stave's ability to throw some ugly interceptions, it could be a long, long day for him and the offense. However, if and when Wisconsin gets inside the red zone, they should have no problem converting with the Gamecocks' red-zone defense ranks 60th in the country (82.93 percent).
As a whole, the defense is the 15th-best defense in the country based on points allowed (20.0) and 18th based on yards/game (345.0), but the allowance of 5.42 yards/play lends to the thinking that the backfield should not have a problem getting to the second level of the defense.
Wisconsin Special Teams
With Kyle French being benched and ultimately deciding to leave the program, kicker Jack Russell has provided light at the end of the tunnel for Wisconsin's kicking woes. The Waunkee, WI native has made eight of his last nine field goals and 8 of 11 overall. "I really have to have that kind of confidence," Russell told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus. "If I don't have that confidence then my teammates won't have that confidence and I'm not going to be able to put my best foot forward and give the team the best opportunity to score points." Even if Russell is growing more and more comfortable, I think I speak for a lot of people in that not a lot of people have confidence in him if the game is on the line.
While punter Drew Meyer is second to last in the conference in gross punting average (38.6), you have to take into account the amount of pooch punts he has had to resort to. In an article by Wisconsin State Journal's Tom Mulhern in November, special teams coach Jeff Genyk pointed out Meyer had 15 pooch punts on the season with 13 landing inside the 20. Also, let's not forget the horrendous weather conditions for the Iowa game with the wind being a big factor. I'm not entirely sold on Meyer being in the upper half of the conference, but we will see if almost ideal conditions Wednesday.
South Carolina Special Teams
South Carolina junior punter Tyler Hull is not much better, ranking last in the SEC in gross average (38.0). He had a low of 29.3 yard average against Vandy with three punts (41 long) and a high of 47.0 against UCF with three punts as well (55 long).
On the other hand, freshman kicker Elliot Fry is having a strong first year with the Gamecocks, converting on 15-of-18 field goals (5th in the SEC). His leg is not that strong though, as he only has a long of 45, but is 6-of-8 on kicks of 40-49 yards.
Prediction: If Ludwig does not put it in the hands of Stave, I truly believe Wisconsin can come away victorious and end their season on a high note. Nonetheless, I think South Carolina has way too many athletes on both sides of the ball and Shaw will make too many plays with his arms and legs. Regardless of a victory or defeat, let's just hope no Wisconsin player lands on SportsCenter, courtesy of Clowney.
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