Hello again, Canes fam! We’re back for our final opponent Q&A of the season.
I returned the favor and answered some of Jake’s questions about Miami, and you can see that conversation here:
For our side of the Q&A, see below.
Q1. What are the high and low points of Wisconsin's 2017 to date?
Jake Kocorowski (B5Q): Let's start off with the lowest point, and that was the Big Ten Championship game loss to Ohio State. With so much on the line--a conference title but more important a berth in the College Football Playoff--uncharacteristic misses on defense along with a run game stuffed by an athletic Buckeye front eye shut down what could have been unprecedented territory for Paul Chryst's squad. The Badgers also lost the likes of team captain Jack Cichy before the year even began, who could have made Jim Leonhard's defense even greater at the inside linebacker position.
But that should not drown out the other amazing accomplishments Wisconsin achieved. An undefeated regular season, Exploding against Michigan in the second half for a much-needed home win in November, a defense that ranks among the top 10 in several major categories and held Iowa to 66 total yards after the Hawkeyes trounced the Buckeyes for 487 just a week prior. That's not including seeing the emergence of true freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor or younger playmakers at wide receiver like A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis (plus Quintez Cephus, who was lost for the rest of the season during the win at Indiana).
The program continues to ascend under Chryst.
Q2. What are your impressions on QB Alex Hornibrook? What are his strengths and weaknesses as a QB?
B5Q: Wisconsin fans will compare every single quarterback now to Russell Wilson after he came to Madison in 2011. It happened with Joel Stave, Bart Houston and now Hornibrook. The southpaw completed 61.6 percent of his passes this year with 21 touchdown passes; however, he threw 15 interceptions which drove fans mad.
With his weaknesses, there are times where he won't make the right throw or throw it where it should be (see: Iowa's first pick-six back in November on a badly thrown pass to the sideline)--I call them "oopsy" plays where he'll throw an interception or two per game. Some point to not enough arm strength, but to be fair he has plenty of an arm to play in college and has shown to make big-time throws in tight windows (see also: 24-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Taylor against Michigan).
That's one of his strengths: being able to fight back through adversity of a poor play and having that trait every quarterback needs in moving on from mistakes. He has the command of Chryst's offense and will only continue to grow in his redshirt junior year next year, with what could be an even more potent offense. Wisconsin is not really built to win a game when you have to pass over 30 times per game, but he does have the ability to move the ball down the field when he needs to in the passing game, and that's also thanks to his receiving targets in All-American Troy Fumagalli and those younger receivers mentioned earlier.
Q3. One of the calling cards of Wisconsin football is a tough run game. Starring at RB this year is freshman Jonathan Taylor. I know the numbers, but tell me about him.
B5Q: A pleasant surprise, as all of us in the media were really thinking both Bradrick Shaw and Chris James would be the big names to lead a rejuvenated running game. In the first two weeks of fall camp, Taylor flashed but was mostly with the reserves on offense.
Once they closed practices, he shined even further. When the Big Ten Network came to watch a scrimmage on a Friday night, Dave Revsine tweeted about how Taylor gashed the first-team defense for a touchdown, and then the true freshman continued to build upon that performance which led to him being a co-starter with Shaw and James to start the season. Shaw's now out for the season while James, if healthy, appears to be the better complement to Taylor.
Taylor is well beyond his years in terms of his maturity, his patience and vision on the field. As a first year player, what he has been able to do is remarkable in following blockers but also finding the opening to burst into the second and third level. Combine that with his physical strength to run over defenders and speed to flat out sprint past them, and all the ingredients came together quickly for a huge freshman campaign.
Against Miami, though, he cannot fumble like he has at times during the season.
Q4. Wisconsin's OL is routinely the biggest and one of the best in CFB. Who are the players up front to know?
B5Q: It's mostly a veteran group outside of redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz, but he has been a great presence this season. He allowed highly-touted redshirt junior Michael Deiter to move out to left tackle, and though Deiter will play on the interior line in the NFL, he's held up alright for most of the year (definitely not his natural position).
The right side of the line is pretty solid with right guard Beau Benzschawel (third-team All-American by AP) and right tackle David Edwards (several All-America honors including first-team by the AFCA, second-team by Walter Camp and FWAA). Edwards for sure will return for his redshirt junior year while Benzschawel submitted NFL Draft feedback, but I have a feeling he'll stay.
Left guard is the one position to watch. Redshirt sophomore Jon Dietzen can be a presence when healthy, but at times it's seemed like he has battled injuries. Walk-on Jason Erdmann has filled in well. Both solidify the line and you do not see much differences in what Wisconsin runs when they're both in.
Q5. On the flip side, Wisconsin has a tough defense, led by DC Jim Leonhard. What do the Badgers do well on D?
B5Q: You hear the motto "Smart. Tough. Dependable." often from this program and its staff, and it shows in this defense--yet there is also a speed and athleticism with this group that helps it stand out as well. Each player preached all season about playing to their 1/11th and not trying to do beyond what they are supposed to. Leonhard's defense features a stout front seven with a veteran and underrated defensive line eating up holes to allow in the inside and outside linebackers to make plays. Those inside backers, including first-team All-American T.J. Edwards and former walk-on Ryan Connelly, hit hard and can also pursue downhill quickly (Connelly especially has shown this). The outside linebackers in Garret Dooley, Leon Jacobs and Andrew Van Ginkel have taken over the production lost when T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel moved on to the NFL, creating sacks and pressure that have led to turnovers.
The secondary really has shut down opponents for the good majority of the season. They are physical bunch, led by first-team all-conference cornerback Nick Nelson and fellow corner Derrick Tindal. Natrell Jamerson took over at free safety and can cover well while also laying a smack on the field as well, while D'Cota Dixon and Joe Ferguson have played very well at strong safety.
They communicate well and play for each other. Out of my four years covering this team, honestly, this is a tight knit group where everyone has a bond with each other.
Q6. Speaking of Jim Leonhard, what are the chances he stays in Madison for another year? He's highly regarded and has been linked to several other jobs this season.
B5Q: He stays at least for another year in my opinion, but he'll be sought after (rightly so). There were the rumors about Florida State wanting him to come to Tallahassee, but right now he's at his alma mater in Wisconsin, a place he calls home with a family and a university where he emerged from a former walk-on to become a three-time All-American.
I'm honestly intrigued if the NFL comes calling. He moved on to become a 10-year NFL veteran in leading some of Rex Ryan's best defenses in the late 2000s in Baltimore and New York. When speaking with Ryan for my book I co-authored on Wisconsin's walk-on tradition, the former head coach boasted and glowed about Leonhard being the quarterback of the defense. Despite being so new to the coaching game, Jim has the intelligence and ability to succeed at either level.
Q7. What is Wisconsin's biggest weakness on Defense that Miami can exploit?
B5Q: For a defense that has been so stout this year in both the run and pass games, there have been some times that Wisconsin has missed tackles and at times communication was an issue earlier this year. Against the Buckeyes, the combination of missed tackles and missed assignments doomed their chances of getting to the CFP. Miami has a chance with Malik Rosier to make some plays I think through the air and on the ground, but it should be intriguing how Leonhard lays out the game plan.
The notion that Wisconsin's team speed is a weakness, however, based on the conference championship game, I feel is a false narrative. Ohio State ran four plays that gained 271 of its 449 yards in the conference championship game mostly due to blown assignments. The 80-plus yard strike from J.T. Barrett may be the only case for that argument, but it was great scheming from the Buckeyes in putting the former walk-on and grandson of Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez in Ferguson up against a more dynamic player.
Jamerson and Nelson both missed tackles near the line of scrimmage on a bubble screen to Parris Campbell that went 50-plus yards for a touchdown, and missed tackles in the backfield (plus no backer behind said potential tackler to clean up) allowed J.K. Dobbins to find his way deep into Wisconsin territory on two big runs. On those Dobbins runs, Wisconsin defenders did finally catch up to him to thwart potential touchdowns on those plays alone.
Q8. Special teams gets little love, but has a huge impact on the games. Who in the kicking and return games could have an impact on Saturday's game?
B5Q: For kickoff specialists, walk-on Zach Hintze has recorded 50 touchbacks in 72 attempts after replacing P.J. Rosowski due to injury earlier in the season. Wisconsin as a team recorded 54 touchbacks on the season, best in the Big Ten. Redshirt junior (and everyone's favorite) placekicker Rafael Gaglianone returned to form this season, connecting on 14 of 16 field goals.
Punting-wise, Wisconsin was third-last in the conference in average yards per attempt, but sophomore Anthony Lotti had a solid game against Ohio State and has recorded 25 of his 51 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line.
Nelson returned a punt for a touchdown against Michigan in November and can be dangerous if a lane opens up and he gets some room. Kickoff returns have not been great (20.7 yards per return--72nd in the FBS), with a few players switching in an out. Tindal has been used more prominently towards the end of the year.
Q9. Miami has been great at forcing turnovers this year, but Wisconsin is also averaging > 2 TO created per fame. How have the Badgers been able to take the ball away from their opponents?
B5Q: Wisconsin forced 26 takeaways this year (17 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries). Eight different players have recorded interceptions, with the players taking advantage of being in the right positions and trusting themselves to make plays in both the turnovers and applying pressure to opposing offenses (averaging three sacks per game). That's a credit to Leonhard for, in my opinion, allowing the players to play fast. Ferguson and T.J. Edwards are both tied for the team lead with four, and the former has acted like a ballhawk and really trusted his ability to break on passes and make plays after working in with Dixon fighting an injury the second half of the year. The team has also recorded five pick-sixes on the season, most recently Van Ginkel's interception return for a touchdown against Ohio State in the conference championship game, with both Ferguson and Edwards also owning a pick-six as well.
Q10. Is there a letdown for Wisconsin after being undefeated all season but losing the B1G Championship game and missing the College Football Playoff?
B5Q: To be so close to securing a College Football Playoff berth, it probably won't be something the players forget but Hornibrook told me earlier this month that he feels the team wasn't dwelling on the loss anymore. This Orange Bowl does allow this 2017 team to play one last game together as a group. I know all college football teams are close, but I wrote about how this group of Badgers feels about each other after the Minnesota game. They'll show up and put forth the effort to try to be the first team in Wisconsin history to win 13 games in a season.
Q11. Prediction time: how does the game play out and who wins? (include a score)
B5Q: I'm back and forth on it, even with two days before the game. Wish I was down there covering the game, as it is 1) really cold up here and 2) I have a special place for Miami in my heart, as I lived in Cape Coral for four years, with one of my first college letters coming from Miami after taking a Pre-SAT exam.
Back to the game, it will be a battle of two really good, athletic defenses and it will come down to who turns the ball over less, and who makes the most of those opportunities (cliche I know but with these two teams, it's especially true). Offensively, Wisconsin needs to show it can run the ball against a great front seven like Miami, with Hornibrook reducing his "oopsy" plays. Miami's offense, though without some major contributors, still poses threats through the air and on the ground. Again, the Badgers have a chance on a national stage to prove their among the best teams in the nation and to shrug off the narratives you hear about them just being a slower Big Ten team that had an easier schedule.
I think Wisconsin wins a close one, a 24-20 game with the Badgers making just one or two more plays that decide the game. UW's defense I feel can stop the U's offense enough, while I feel the offensive line wants to prove they can move the ball against a talented front.
Thanks to Jake for joining us in the opponent Q&A this week. You can read his work, and the work of other talented writers, over at Bucky’s 5th Quarter.