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: Much like Miami, Wisconsin’s season has been a gigantic disappointment. What happened?
Jake Kocorowski (B5Q): Really, a combination of things (like everything, right?). First, the offense--really specifically the passing game--failed to live up to expectations. Wisconsin’s ground game is one of the best in the nation, but the aerial attack lacked consistency and some deep threats. UW comes into the bowl game 116th in the nation in passing offense. Redshirt junior Alex Hornibrook, who will not start at QB1 on Thursday due to recurring symptoms from a head injury suffered sometime this year, did not make the progressions I thought he would make entering the season. Though they fared well without him in the last five games last season, the passing game missed junior Quintez Cephus this year. Cephus was indefinitely suspended due to second- and third-degree sexual assault charges filed in late August.
Then there’s also replacing the seven starters and two key contributors on defense. We all knew Wisconsin would take a step back defensively from a Top 5 unit a year ago. I felt the offense would be able to carry the defense this year, but that has not been the case--especially with puzzling losses to BYU and Minnesota.
Q2: No question. I’m just giving you the chance to wax poetic about Jonathan Taylor’s greatness.
B5Q: I have had the opportunity to cover Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and Jonathan Taylor in my five-plus years at B5Q. I still feel MGIII is the most dynamic I’ve witnessed live, but Taylor at the end of his career could eclipse that. This season, he has reduced his fumbles and matured even further on the field. I think this season, he improved following his blockers with his patience, all the while showing even more physical gains in the weight room. That means he’s fast, he’s physical, and he’s the nation’s leading rusher and Doak Walker Award winner for a reason.
If Wisconsin can get the ground game going--which will be tough sledding against Miami’s run defense--that will be a main key for offensive success.
Q3: So, Alex Hornibrook is out. Who is Jack Coan and why could he present problems for Miami’s defense?
B5Q: In essentially a homecoming game, Coan will burn his redshirt this season in playing his fifth game--fourth start--for the Badgers. His high school pedigree is impressive--Gatorade New York Player of the Year and set some Long Island records in the passing game. In the fourth quarter of the Purdue game, he really showed promise when he threw two touchdown passes that helped force overtime in the triple OT win in November.
From what was seen in fall camp and a little during games, he is more mobile than Hornibrook and can make a little bit more plays with his feet if needed. It is interesting though, that when speaking with right tackle David Edwards earlier this year, Coan tends to go through his reads more in the pocket when receivers are covered than Hornibrook, as the latter would try to move around a little bit more. Coan throws a pretty accurate pass with some decent spin, but honestly against this Miami defense that is first in the nation in pass defense, I’m not sure how he’ll fare. That’s nothing against the second-year player, but definitely more of a compliment to the Hurricanes.
Q4: Wisconsin’s WRs put on a clinic vs Miami last year. Who are the players making plays in the passing game for the Badgers?
B5Q: Again, this passing attack has been highly inconsistent and underachieving this season, but they could surprise on Thursday. Sophomore Danny Davis leads the team in receptions (40) but only has averaged a hint under 11 yards per catch with five touchdowns this season. Davis caught three touchdown passes from Hornibrook in last year’s Orange Bowl, and has the capability to pull down contested throws (like the two he had in the fourth quarter against Purdue). Junior A.J. Taylor (30 receptions, 508 yards, three touchdowns) is another one to watch, though I wonder how the receiving corps will gain separation against the Miami defensive backfield.
Tight end Jake Ferguson (34 receptions, four touchdowns) emerged during this season to become a key target on third down. If Wisconsin can move the chains on that key down, it’s likely because Coan can find him as Hornibrook did earlier in the season.
Q5: Wisconsin’s defense has been average-ish (42nd in Total D and 53rd in Yards per Play). What’s been keeping them from better performance?
B5Q: Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard had to replace seven starters from last year, which led to a very inexperienced unit across the board. I really focus in on the defensive line and secondary, the former of which had to replace three major contributors in ends Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy. Junior Garrett Rand, who was slated to start at end, suffered a season-ending injury during summer training. Senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu returned for his final year but was lost for the rest of the season after suffering a right arm injury at Northwestern in late October. So at times Wisconsin had contributors on the line that were all either true or redshirt freshmen (outside of starting redshirt sophomore end Isaiahh Loudermilk, who himself dealt with injuries). One of those contributors, Kayden Lyles, actually converted to defensive end from the offensive line due to depth troubles.
Secondary-wise, they lost three starters--two of which are in the NFL with Nick Nelson (Raiders) and Natrell Jamerson (Packers) plus a key reserve. Injuries really hurt the unit but I thought they played pretty well all things considered. Again, a lot of youth and inexperience in the defensive backfield, but it grew and was a testament to both their ability and Leonhard’s coaching.
Q6: Who are the top playmakers on Defense?
B5Q: It starts with inside linebacker and 2017 All-American T.J. Edwards. He leads the team in tackles (104) and will look to end his Wisconsin career on a winning note after spurning the NFL last season to return.
Edwards’s position mate, Ryan Connelly, will not play due to a procedure he underwent that will hold him out of the game. Despite the subpar year for the unit as a whole by recent Wisconsin standards, the duo formed one of the nation’s best inside linebacking corps. Connelly rose from a walk-on to a player who could make an impact in the backfield and will likely have a career in the NFL. His presence will be missed, but redshirt junior Chris Orr, a former starter, will takeover in his place.
At outside linebacker, Andrew Van Ginkel battled an injury since the BYU game but came back to healthy form late in the year and was a presence in the backfield. He was the Badger who made the interception in the second quarter during the Orange Bowl that turned the tide in the game. Redshirt junior Zack Baun has been gradually improving over the course of the year after missing last season due a foot injury. Both are lanky, athletic players at that position.
In the secondary, D’Cota Dixon is a physical safety who can make stops in the box and is one of the leaders of this unit. Redshirt freshman Scott Nelson has shown flashes of being a playmaker at free safety. I really like true freshman cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, a Miami native who pushed through the depth chart to be a starter. He has been flagged for some defensive penalties lately, but he is a physical-type corner that has a potential to make a longterm presence for UW.
Q7: The Pinstripe Bowl is the 3rd bowl matchup between Miami and Wisconsin this decade, and 2nd consecutive bowl game between these teams. Are you excited to see Miami on the opposite sideline again or have you grown tired of this pairing?
B5Q: I think a lot of the fanbase was not particularly pleased to see a rematch of the Orange Bowl. That is nothing against Miami, but more just a feeling that they’ve seen both teams play recently (I think fans would agree with a similar style of thinking with participating in either the Outback or former Capital One Bowl for a good stretch of time back in the mid to late 2000s).
The Wisconsin alums living in NYC, along with friends and family of Coan and wide receiver Aron Cruickshank, a Brooklyn native, will likely be pleased to see them in action.
Q8: Alright, prediction time: How does the game play out and who wins the Pinstripe Bowl?
B5Q: Right now, I’m just really pessimistic about Wisconsin moving the ball efficiently against Miami’s defense. The key will be not just to get the Badgers to run the ball efficiently against a unit that only gives up 127.5 yards per game (UW is seventh in the nation rushing the ball at 268.4 per contest), but they need to keep the Hurricanes’ defense honest from stacking the box eight or nine full with some form of a passing attack. Wisconsin’s offense, as cliché as it is, needs to convert on third downs to keep drives alive because outside of some Taylor chunk runs, the explosive plays just have not been there otherwise.
Another key is Wisconsin containing a Miami offense that averages almost 200 yards on the ground. The Badgers were gashed for 201 in a stunning loss to Minnesota the last game of the regular season. If the Badgers contains the rush attack, I think they have a great shot to come out of New York City with a W.
Right now, I will say Miami 20, Wisconsin 17. It may even be 14-10 really depending upon how the defenses play, but I think Miami gets the victory here.
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.