BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Andre Dixon gave his head coach one last thank you for sticking by him over the past five years.
The running back, often mired in trouble with the team, rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries, earning most valuable player honors and leading UConn to a 20-7 victory over South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl at Legion Field on Saturday.
Dixon was suspended for the first two games of the 2007 season due to a violation of team rules and also missed the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh in 2008 after being arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
Upon returning to the team for last year's International Bowl, which he did not play in, Dixon made a pact: turn things around and lead the team in 2009.
He did just that.
"Now you know why I never gave up on the kid, because of what he's all about and what he's got inside of him," said UConn head coach Randy Edsall. "To go through his career and see some of the ups and downs that Andre has had - and then to watch him come through this year and have the kind of year that he had - I said this, but this guy, he was probably the true leader of the football team this year. We had captains and our captains did a good job, but this was - this was the glue right here. This was the rock. He's the guy that deserves a ton of credit."
Dixon, who finished with 1,093 yards, became part of the first UConn duo with Jordan Todman to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. Todman gained 36 yards on nine carries to finish with 1,188 yards.
"I don't know where it came from," said Dixon, who accepted the trophy on the field and cried while walking to the locker room. "I think it was the South or something. I don't know what it is."
UConn (8-5) won its second consecutive bowl game in its fourth appearance. South Carolina (7-6) falls to 4-11 in postseason games.
It was the Huskies who controlled this one. A 37-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Zach Frazer to Kashif Moore set the tone early, with Moore's one-handed grab a sign of the way UConn would have its way with the Gamecocks' defense.
South Carolina entered the game 15th in the nation in total defense and allowed UConn to pick up just 253 yards - its third fewest of the season.
But the Huskies were productive, getting field goals of 33 and 44 yards from Dave Teggart and Dixon's 10-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
"We just thoroughly got beat today," said South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier. "I thought we could play with UConn. I didn't think they were going to shut us out, which they probably should have done."
The Huskies allowed South Carolina's only touchdown after Desi Cullen had a punt tipped by Quin Smith with 4:01 remaining. Brian Maddox finished up with a 2-yard run shortly thereafter.
Frazer finished 9-for-21 with 107 yards and the touchdown. Scott Lutrus led the UConn defense with nine tackles and was one of four players with a sack.
It was the end of a tumultuous season for the Huskies, who endured the stabbing death of starting cornerback Jasper Howard and fought through a three-game losing streak, including all five losses by a combined 15 points, to become bowl eligible.
"It just says something about our character and how strong of a family UConn is and how tightly-glued we are," Dixon said. "It's just amazing when 105 guys come together and they commit themselves to doing something great and they do it."