With tears in his eyes and the weight of his final moments as a South Carolina Gamecock clearly weighing heavy on his mind, senior quarterback Connor Shaw bid farewell to the fans as he accepted the Capital One Bowl MVP trophy.
Surprisingly, there were many choices for MVP in this game. Wide receiver Bruce Ellington made several catches that helped the Gamecocks offense stay on the field. Fellow receiver Shaq Roland also wowed the crowd with his ability to hold on to loose balls.
But Shaw was clearly the difference maker based on his gritty and effective performance alone. Three touchdown passes, one rushing touchdown, and yes, even a touchdown catch, helped propel Shaw to MVP and the Gamecocks over the Wisconsin Badgers 34-24.
Shaw dissected the Badgers' defense with 22 of 25 passes completed and 312 yards.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen had nothing but nice things to say about the senior QB, even in defeat.
"He lived up to his billing," said Andersen. "His ability to understand pressure, even when we got him tricked, running free hitters at him. He's hard to get on the ground. He makes good decisions."
"Our plan was to be aggressive [on Shaw]," said Badger linebacker Chris Borland. "And at times, we didn't get the pressure we should have and at times he was able to extend plays. That's very frustrating. We've seen it before. But we didn't play well enough to win today. I've got to give him a lot of credit. He's a great player."
Shaw's own coach, the notoriously hard-to-impress Steve Spurrier, had high praise.
"I've had a lot of good [quarterbacks] and Connor is right there amongst the best," said Spurrier. "No question about it."
Superlatives for Shaw aside, the Gamecocks wide receiver squad also did well and made plays when necessary.
Ellington, who now has legitimate questions surrounding whether or not he should declare for the NFL Draft, snagged 6 catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Roland wasn't close behind with 6 catches of his own and 112 yards.
"A couple times I just threw it up, and Shaq and Bruce made some excellent plays," said Shaw. "So I couldn't be more proud."
Ellington, however, wouldn't take much of the credit away from the QB or his team.
"The guys, we came together as a team today," said Ellington. "Connor did a great job of leading us. We just came as a team today and just built on what we did all week and just came out and played."
The Gamecocks have now gone three straight seasons with 11 wins and a bowl victory, a fact not lost on Spurrier.
"But everything in all my life, in all the Gamecock life, we've never had three years identical," said Spurrier. "I mean, think about it: 6-2 in the conference, 11-2, win a bowl game, beat Clemson in all three. They're identical years, almost."
Now the Gamecocks head back to Columbia. They'll celebrate tonight, but Shaw and Ellington have decisions to make. Spurrier, however, let it slip that Shaw was invited to the NFL Combine.
Spurrier believes his QB has the chance to make it to the next level considering how the pros are utilizing mobile quarterbacks.
"Connor will play a lot more football," said Spurrier. "I'm sure the NFL guys were watching today. They're looking for quarterbacks that can avoid the rush, move around a little bit and throw. And Connor can do all that."
We'll just see what happens next for the quiet Flowery Branch, Georgia native who firmly finished his collegiate career as one of the greatest players in South Carolina history.
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