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What happened to Wisconsin in 2018?

Defensive struggles ignited the Badgers struggles that ultimately left them as a five loss team.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Flashback all the way to the summer of 2018. The Wisconsin Badgers were widely recognized as the 2017 Orange Bowl champions that could potentially take the next step by beating Ohio State and winning the Big 10 for the first time since 2012.

They returned every single offensive lineman from their one-loss 2017 season which included three All-Americans and a freshman All-American, star running back Jonathan Taylor, a third-year starter at quarterback in Alex Hornibrook, and All-American linebacker T.J. Edwards who returned for his senior year despite having an opportunity to go pro.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The question for the Badgers was how they were going to respond to the losses of three defensive ends that combined for 90 starts over four years and three starters at defensive back. Then on August 29th sophomore CB Dontye Carriere-Williams, a former standout at St. Thomas Aquinas, announced his intention to transfer.

The abundance of departures on defense was simply too much for the Badgers. They finished the 2018 regular season ranked 111th nationally in sacks with just 1.5 per game and 108th in tackles for loss with 4.8 per game. Jim Leonhard’s group struggled to get off the field on third down, their red-zone defense ranked 74th, and they were fairly average at forcing turnovers. Their highest defensive ranking was their 38th ranked pass defense, which allowed 11.87 yards per competition and just over 200 yards per game.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

On the ground, Wisconsin gave up 4.4 yards per carry and 157.9 yards per game, which ranked 57th nationally.

Nobody envisioned this team losing five games in July.

In 2017, the Badgers outscored BYU, Michigan, Northwestern, and Minnesota 128-40. In 2018, Wisconsin lost to those same four teams by a combined score of 130-66.

In losses, they gave up an average of 215.4 rushing yards per game and almost 2.5 touchdowns per game, including a game that Michigan ran for 320-yards.

Wisconsin is kind of the anti-Miami. While the Hurricanes fielded a one of the nations strongest defenses, their offense clearly struggled enough to land them five losses. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is led by Doak Walker Award winning RB Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 1989 yards and 15 touchdowns on 7.1 yards per carry.

It is clear that running the ball is the priority for them. Badger quarterbacks attempted just 293 passes to their 513 rushing attempts and Taylor alone ran for more yards than the entire quarterback room threw for.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Hornibrook, the Badgers quarterback who threw for 258 yards and four touchdowns against the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl last year, regressed statistically in 2018. A year ago he threw for 2644 yards on 312 attempts with 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. This year he threw for 1532 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He got banged up a little bit and missed games against Northwestern, Penn State, and Purdue.

His worst game came in their regular season finale at home against a 5-6 Minnesota team that desperately needed a win to become bowl eligible. Hornibrook threw three interceptions and lost a fumble that immediately lead to a 23-yard touchdown run in a 37-15 loss to the Gophers.

The reality is that Wisconsin is not even close to the team they were a year ago. Their defensive struggles are real. Hornibrook is neither 100% healthy or making very good football decisions. Miami did a great job of limiting Jonathan Taylor in last years matchup, so Manny Diaz and his defense should feel confident in their ability to limit their offense.

Hornibrook’s lack of health and recent struggles also suggest that he may not have another career day against the nations leading pass defense. If the Hurricanes offense can show up against one of the worst teams in the nation at creating pressure, Miami should find themselves in a great spot to be successful in this matchup.

The Pinstripe Bowl will be played on Thursday Dec. 27th at 5:15 p.m.

*Update: Wisconsin will be starting QB Jack Coan, who is 50-82 for 488 yards and four touchdowns and two interceptions. He is 1-2 as a starter with losses coming to Northwestern and Penn State and his only win coming against Purdue.