Typically during bowl season, teams travel all over the country to face-off against opponents for post-season glory. However, this bowl season sees the Miami Hurricanes in a familiar position and the Canes won’t have to stray too far to potentially hoist a bowl trophy this year.
That’s right, the Hurricanes are staying home to defend their own turf, competing in the Orange Bowl for the first time since the 2003 season when Brock Berlin and the Canes toppled Florida State at Pro Player Stadium, 16-14. UM has actually won two National Titles playing in the Orange Bowl (1987, 1991) and is 6-3 all-time in one of the most famous post-season games played annually.
The opponent in Miami’s quest for their 7th Orange Bowl victory? That’d be the Big 10 runner-up and the #6 team in the country, the Wisconsin Badgers. Paul Chryst’s 12-1 squad ran the table in the regular season before falling in the Big 10 Championship Game to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Similarly, the last time we saw the Canes was about a month ago, when they suffered a beatdown at the hands of the #1 Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. Both teams want to wash the bad tastes of conference championship losses out of their mouth and, the day before New Year’s Eve, will be pining to end their 2017 on a high note.
“Well, you know, when you're 18 to 22 (years old), you're probably more resilient than fans and coaches even are,” Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said about the Clemson loss. “They're certainly aware that we didn't play our best, so I do think that there's a sense to right our wrong and trying to feel like a defense, in particular, that did so many great things over the course of the year, that this is our last opportunity for this group to play together and to go out and have a great performance and to play for one another and kind of show everybody what this version of the Miami defense is all about.”
"It was a tough loss and our guys put it out there," Chryst acknowledged about the Ohio State loss. "And yet I feel like I know this team. So they'll be ready to go. And we talked about it after the game. The thing that is fortunate is there is one more game with this team. And knowing this group, they'll move forward. They're looking forward to getting together and playing again."
In terms of the all-time series between the Hurricanes and Badgers, the two have played four times and have split the outcomes evenly, 2-2. However, Wisconsin got the better of Miami last time they met, which was in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl with the Canes led by Randy Shannon. Facing a 2 score deficit with under 2 minutes remaining, a late Jacory Harris TD pass and a recovered Miami onside kick gave the Hurricanes hope, but UM’s final comeback drive fell short and the Canes lost the match-up, 20-14.
It’s true that the past is the past, but this iteration of Wisconsin football doesn’t look a whole lot different from previous versions: the Badgers want to pound the football down your throat with the run game and play stifling defense to keep the score low. But, in a match-up of Wisconsin’s cornfed, beefed up power vs. Miami’s scintillating South Florida speed, the Hurricanes think they have the advantage and will aim to set the pace of the game.
“We like it. We played a lot of powerful teams and they couldn't keep up with the speed,” said Miami DE Chad Thomas. “It's hard to adjust to speed. We can adjust the power because we go in the weight room just like them and we get ready just like them. We're not a weak team. We're probably a little smaller than them, but they've got to adjust to us. Playing with power, we just go out there and be physical. That's a part of the football game; if you’re not physical, you don't have a chance, so going out there and being physical, that's all we've got to do.”
The mammoth and physical UW offensive line is the key to Wisconsin’s identity on the ground. Four Badgers linemen garnered All-Big 10 honors: on the First Team were guard Beau Benzschawel and tackle Michael Deiter, Second Team was tackle David Edwards, and Third Team was center Tyler Biadasz.
The group has allowed 20 sacks this season when protecting the QB, but their main purpose is to pave holes for yet another star Badger tailback in true freshman Jonathan Taylor. Taylor has compiled an impressive 6.8 yards per carry in racking up 1,847 yards on the ground, and 13 touchdowns; he was also a Heisman candidate at one point. In total, the Badgers’ rushing attack averages 229.2 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry, good for #21 in the country.
“[Taylor’s] got good speed. He's got good size,” said Miami DE Joe Jackson. “But like I said, he's hard to bring down, so you've got to wrap up so you don't look like idiots.”
The Badgers’ are not as cohesive when they drop back to pass: QB Alex Hornibrook averages only 183.5 passing yards per game and has struggled with interceptions (15) at times this season. Still, Hornibrook has been able to make the big throws in key situations when they’ve mattered most, so he likely won’t be easily rattled.
An issue here for Wisconsin is the absence of Hornibrook’s #1 receiver Quintez Cephus, who will miss the Orange Bowl with a right leg injury. AJ Taylor (23 catches for 370 yards and four TD’s) and Danny Davis (21 catches for 362 yards and 2 TD’s) haven’t done much to replace Cephus, so much of the burden in the receiving game will fall on tight end Troy Fumagalli. Fumagalli leads the team with 43 catches this season, has added 516 yards and 4 TD’s for good measure, and is also a standout as a blocker. The former walk-on was named First Team All-Big 10 at TE and will be a handful for the Canes’ linebackers and safeties in coverage.
“I think most importantly is we had such a great season and we enjoy being around each other and we've really got to finish this the right way,” Fumagalli said. “We've got to put a stamp on our season, end it the right way and things like that. I think that's what's most important.”
Wisconsin certainly has an exceptional front seven, but, in their 3-4 defense, the defensive lineman are there to eat up blocks to leave room for the linebackers to make plays, with the ultimate goal to shut down the run first and foremost.
And the Badgers have some of the nation’s best at the second level of the defense, starting with First Team All-Big 10 LB TJ Edwards. The former high school quarterback can pack a surprising punch and flies around both in the backfield and in coverage: Edwards has amassed 75 tackles, 11 TFL, 2 sacks, and 4 INT’s. Next to him is the team leader in tackles with 80 in Ryan Connelly, as well as sack-master Garrett Dooley (7.5). The trio plans to give Travis Homer and Mark Richt’s running game headaches on Saturday.
“They're always going to be big and physical. It's going to be tough to run the ball against them,” Miami offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. “They're really simplistic in ways because they can be. So it's going to be a tough challenge for us starting up front, and we just have to make sure we take advantage of opportunities.”
The speed of Miami at wideout will be a challenge for a Badger secondary that has not been tested much this season. Although Wisconsin is #4 in the nation at defending the pass, they have not faced many decent passing attacks. South Florida native Derrick Tindal and first team All-Big Ten selection Nick Nelson make a formidable duo on the boundaries for UW, while safety D’Cota Dixon has 52 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 1 INT patrolling the last line of defense in 2017. Even without Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon, Hurricane offensive weapons Braxton Berrios, Jeff Thomas, and others will look to cause problems for the Badgers on the back-end.
“I mean, just a bunch of fast guys, but I feel like we can run with them pretty well,” Tindal said when discussing Miami at receiver. “A bunch of great receivers, man. So much depth. Just for 82 (Miami WR Ahmmon Richards) to go down and a couple more dudes, and they still look like they ain't missing a beat. They've got great receivers, young guys, and they're going to be a problem in the future. We've just got to stay focused, lock into our technique, and just be comfortable with ourselves and go out there and have fun.”
With all that said, what would a Miami win over Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl mean to the program?
"If we get a win, we will be the first [Miami] team to win an Orange Bowl in a while, so that will be something to have our eyes on," Miami DT Kendrick Norton said.
"It means the world to us that we are finishing up at home and that we did enough this season to get to such a prestigious bowl game," WR Braxton Berrios said. "But the goal is not just getting there; the goal is to win it. We are going to do everything we need to do. I know I'm going to put everything I have on the line for it because it means a lot to us, it means a lot to this program and it means a lot to this community."