Goodbyes are almost never easy, even when they're scripted. For every immaculate series finale (Breaking Bad, The Wire), there's a bungled mess (LOST) that offers as much confusion as it does closure. Of course, there are some shows that have gone so far off the rails that no one even cares by the end (Dexter, the 2013 Florida Gators).
That's not to say that everything needs to be presented in a neatly packaged bow; some questions are meant to remain unanswered (Where did Jesse drive off to when he fled the shootout in the desert? Will Connor Shaw get an NFL contract?). But it sure makes it a lot easier to say goodbye to the characters to whom you've grown so attached when the final hour adds meaning to everything that came before, leaving you with the feeling that their journey is complete--that something has happened to them.
The Capital One Bowl,
Donning the garnet and black for the last time
Against the Badgers, Connor Shaw was as ruthlessly efficient as ever and saved perhaps the best game of his career for last. The Gamecocks' senior signal-caller completed 22 of 25 pass attempts for 312 yards and three touchdowns, adding another 47 yards and a score on the ground.
Oh. By the way. He also caught a touchdown pass.
While Shaw had his usual complement of zone-read keepers, designed draws, and impromptu scrambles, what made his final performance truly special was that he did so much of his 368 total yards worth of damage with his arm. Shaw spent most of 2012 and the early part of 2013 dogged by detractors who didn't think he was a proficient enough passer to warrant starting over Dylan Thompson. As I watched Connor connect with Bruce Ellington and Shaq Roland on improbable bomb after improbable bomb, my mind found it impossible not to taunt the distant memory of the quarterback controversy, especially because Shaw seemed to be succeeding by doing what Thompson has always done best--just chucking it up to the Heavens because #YOLO. It truly felt like the arc of the Connor Shaw story at South Carolina was complete.
Of course, Shaw's performance might not have been anywhere close to what it was but for several spectacular grabs by Bruce Ellington, who was also playing his final game in a South Carolina uniform. Though his mind was likely already made up as it concerned the NFL Draft, Ellington--following Ace Sanders' lead from the 2012 Outback Bowl--seized the opportunity of the national showcase on New Year's Day and turned in the best statistical performance of his career, throwing the aforementioned touchdown pass to Shaw and hauling in six passes for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Oddly enough, it's not the counting stats themselves--impressive though they are--that made Ellington's performance stand out but the manner in which he accumulated them. As he has all year, Bruce showed tremendous body control and great hands catching this ball that Connor Shaw threw--not deliberately, I don't think--to his back shoulder.
Entering the game, I was consumed with dread and anxiety over the likelihood that this would be our last-ever opportunity to see Bruce Ellington in a Gamecock uniform. But somewhere around his spectacular grab on fourth-and-seven, my tone changed to something more approximately resembling, "GO GET PAID, BRUCE. YA DONE EARNT IT."
The defensive stars were more heavily represented by the underclassmen, but Jadeveon Clowney and Victor Hampton had their moments, too. Clowney, in particular, was disruptive throughout most of the game. Exactly one year removed from the play that would change his public perception forever, Brian Griese joined the exclusive fraternity of color analysts who have been able to see that Clowney was impacting the game on almost every down, even if he wasn't necessarily accumulating the gaudy sack totals everyone was expecting.
Meanwhile, Victor Hampton's game was a perfect microcosm of his career. He sat out the first defensive play for a violation of team rules and would later knock Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave in a manner befitting a person trying to frantically exhaust his remaining supply of #turnt before the #turnt inspectors arrive and find him with so much #turnt that they charge him with intent to distribute.
Out with the old, in with the new
Just as Michael Lee became the new Omar Little in the final moments of -30-, so did Shaq Roland become the new Bruce Ellington during the final quarter of the Capital One Bowl--or, at least, a four-inches-taller version of Ellington with less refined receiving skills but perhaps even more raw talent. With South Carolina up 20-17 early in the fourth quarter, Roland hauled in this ridiculous 49-yard catch to put the Gamecocks just out the Wisconsin 10-yard line, setting up Jerrell Adams' touchdown grab that would push USC's lead to two scores for the first time all day.
Roland finished with 455 receiving yards and five touchdowns in just 10 games and would have had a chance to pass Damiere Byrd for second place had he not been suspended for three contests during the middle of the season. Thanks to Roland's steady progression, the Gamecocks appear to be in great shape at the wide receiver position entering 2014, even accounting for Ellington's early departure for the NFL Draft.
Roland's highlight-reel catch was set up by a timely fourth down stop, in which junior SPUR Sharrod Golightly came around the edge to stuff Melvin Gordon in the backfield, denying Wisconsin's star running back the mere inches he needed to pick up the first down. The play cemented Golightly's arrival as a playmaker on the defense after he began the season as the clear weak link in South Carolina's back seven and the most likely candidate to relinquish his starting role.
The other standout underclassman defensive performance came from freshman linebacker Skai Moore, who picked off a pair of Wisconsin passes, giving him four interceptions in the final five games and making him the team lead in takeaways. For the second game in a row, Moore's fourth-quarter interception sealed the victory for the Gamecocks.
The best Gamecocks ever
Over the past four seasons, USC went 42-11 (33-6 in the last three) with three bowl wins, an SEC East championship, and a 1.00 winning percentage against Clemson. It's the best four-year stretch in the history of Gamecock football.
Virtually every Gamecock who was vital to South Carolina's historic run--and several who are quite new to Columbia-- made an impact in the 34-24 victory over Wisconsin: the five-star recruits, the three-star recruits mad, and the guy who came to South Carolina as a basketball player made an impact.
This group deserved to go out with a great, complete win. They got one. What a finale.
- Bruce Ellington declares for NFL Draft
- Gamecock Basketball Preview: SC State
- Capital One Bowl: South Carolina Gamecocks Beat Wisconsin Badgers 34-24, Jadeveon Clowney to Enter NFL Draft
- 2014 Capital One Bowl: Hampton, Golightly violated team rules, won't start vs. Wisconsin
- Capital One Bowl: Three Keys and Prediction