One poor game by the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense to end the regular season should not undo all of the good that came before it.
But the performance by the Badgers’ defense in a 31-24 loss to Penn State on Nov. 30 raises questions that will need answers before UW faces a potent South Carolina offense in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla.
The Gamecocks (10-2) average 453.5 yards of offense, the best in school history, and have scored 34.1 points per game this season.
South Carolina’s balanced attack is led by senior quarterback Connor Shaw, who has rushed for 40 first downs and thrown only one interception in 259 passing attempts.
Sophomore tailback Mike Davis has rushed for 1,134 yards and averages 5.8 yards per carry for the Gamecocks, who have committed only 15 turnovers.
“I know they beat Clemson and UCF, (both) BCS teams,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “You play in a conference they play in (the Southeastern Conference) and to get 10 wins at this point is something special for them.”
UW’s defense was rock solid for most of the season before doing several uncharacteristic things against Penn State. At the top of the list was allowing four huge plays — pass completions of 68, 59 and 52 yards, and a 61-yard run late in the game that helped Penn State secure the victory.
“I think that we do obviously need to learn from a lot of things that we did in that game,” senior free safety Dezmen Southward said. “We had a lot of little breakdowns that turned into big plays. I don’t think you can have that if you expect to be a big-time defense, which is, in my opinion, what we are and what we’ve been for the majority of this season.”
The other big problem was UW’s failure to line up correctly, which was usually the result of not getting the defensive signals in quickly enough from the sideline. UW’s defensive players were frequently out of position, and they appeared confused and unsure of what to do.
“I think defensively, across the board, we know we’re better than that,” senior nose guard Beau Allen said.
One key on defense is the return of sophomore safety Michael Caputo, who missed the Penn State game with a head injury.
“We have to get healthy on defense, especially in the back end,” Andersen said. “Getting Michael back there is a huge key for us, and I believe he’ll be back in the bowl game, ready to play.”
Given the experience the Badgers have on defense — seven senior starters and nine seniors overall in the two-deep — they should be able to bounce back from the lousy performance. When Andersen was asked about getting the defense refocused mentally and restoring confidence, he said, “I don’t think either one of those things will be a problem.
“These kids are confident. I don’t think they need to be refocused. We took some time off (last week). The bottom line is this: In the last couple of football games we played on the offensive side ... people have basically said, ‘We dare you to throw the ball.’
And it worked out for them, even in the Minnesota game. ... They dared us to throw the football and Penn State did the same thing. We’ve got to be able to run the ball more effectively. To be able to do that at this point you are going to have to be able to throw the football better and open up the offense a little bit and get some of the other people involved.”
In their nine wins, the Badgers averaged 47.2 rushes per game. In losses to Arizona State, Ohio State and Penn State, they averaged 29.7.
“It’s very difficult,” Andersen said. “We’ve got great running backs and a very talented offensive line, good blocking tight ends and good blocking wide receivers, all the stuff that comes with it. But when you’re plus-one and plus-two (defenders) in the box, it becomes very difficult (to run).
“It wasn’t typical as far as giving up the big plays. … But our kids, they had a great pop in their step last week when they were out running around. They’ll be excited and I promise you, the fact that they know they’re playing in this bowl game, they’ll come out ... and be ready to roll.”
Southward had surgery on his left wrist recently, but he described it as a minor procedure and said it won’t hamper his preparation for the bowl game.
“Something that has been nagging me the entire season, but it’s not very serious,” Southward said. “It’s something that won’t bother me as far as preparation, and I’ll be playing in the game.”
Senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis was named the winner of the Burlsworth Trophy, which is given to the most outstanding college player who began his career as a walk-on.
Abbrederis leads the Badgers with 73 receptions for 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns. He was selected over the two other finalists, Missouri senior guard Max Copeland and Tulsa running back Trey Watts.
McEvoy at QB
Sophomore Tanner McEvoy worked exclusively at quarterback as the Badgers returned to the practice field with a workout for young players and reserves.
Andersen, who was originally expected to be on hand after a recruiting trip to California, had a change in his schedule and was not present, along with several assistant coaches who also were out recruiting.
McEvoy, a junior college transfer who was signed as a quarterback, became a key contributor at safety, making three starts. Since suffering a left wrist injury late in preseason camp, just about all of his time has come at safety.
Redshirt freshman Bart Houston and McEvoy split most of the snaps at quarterback and both had their moments. Houston, who went first in the rotation, showed his arm strength and quick release on several throws, including one where he zipped a pass over the middle to tight end Troy Fumagalli.
On two occasions, McEvoy failed to connect on deep throws, with Robert Wheelwright dropping one ball in the end zone. On another, McEvoy overthrew open tight end Austin Traylor. But McEvoy, who donned his black No. 5 jersey at quarterback — he is No. 17 on defense — came back in the team portion to throw a long touchdown pass to Wheelwright, who beat cornerback Terrance Floyd.
Troopers say South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was ticketed for going 110 mph in a 70 mph zone on a South Carolina interstate.
Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. David Jones said Clowney was pulled over in a Chrysler 300 around 7:30 p.m. Saturday northbound on Interstate 77 in Fairfield County, about 25 miles north of Columbia.
Jones says Clowney was issued the ticket and allowed to drive away. It carries a $355 fine and six points, which are half the points needed to suspend a driver’s license.
Clowney is a junior expected to enter the NFL draft after the Capital One Bowl. He was named to The Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference team Monday.
— Associated Press contributed to this report.