8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Wisconsin -6, Over/Under: 45
Keep track of how many times you hear the term turnover in tonight’s Capital One Orange Bowl, as the Sixth-Ranked Wisconsin Badgers travel southward to meet the Tenth-Ranked Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, in a matchup between a pair of teams looking to get over their disappointment of being left out of the College Football Playoff. One of the nation’s final unbeaten teams to fall, Wisconsin (12-1, 9-1 in Big Ten) managed to parlay a very fortuitous schedule into yet another trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, their third in the last four years, only to fall short once more in a 27-21 defeat to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Falling behind 21-7 early in the Second Quarter, the Badgers gradually clawed their way back into the contest, eventually drawing within three Points, before the eventual League Champions drilled a 20-Yard Field Goal with just over Five Minutes left to play, effectively ending the affair. Despite turning the Buckeyes over three times and hammering away at their injured Quarterback JT Barrett, Paul Chryst’s charges simply couldn’t get anything going Offensively, with their vaunted Rushing Attack relegated to a season-low Sixty Yards on Thirty-Two Carries. Jonathan Taylor (273 CAR, 1,847 YDS, 13 TD) who led the Big Ten in rushing as a Freshman was silenced by the Ohio State Defensive Front, mustering just Forty-One Yards on Fifteen Carries, which represented a season-low for the Underclassman as well. What made the defeat so harrowing for Chryst and Co. was the fact that they proved completely incapable of taking advantage of their opponent’s mistakes, with their own Quarterback, Alex Hornibrook (61.6%, 2,386 YDS, 8.4 Y/A, 21 TD, 15 INT) experiencing a miserable day of his own, with the Redshirt Sophomore completing a dismal 19-of-40 Attempts for 229 Yards and Two Interceptions. The close loss did nothing to dissuade their legion of critics, who had been pointing out for months that the Badgers were nothing more than a good team feasting upon a particularly weak schedule, and one look at their sleight of opponents would certainly grant credence to those opinions. Coming into that ill-fated date with the then Eighth-Ranked Buckeyes, the toughest competition they had faced was in the form of No. 25 Iowa, who despite previously besting those same Buckeyes, hadlived on the fringes of the Rankings throughout the season, and No. 21 Michigan, who had been in free-fall mode after sustaining a litany of injuries at Quarterback. Due to a confluence in scheduling, Wisconsin did not have to play against the rest of the perennial Big Ten powers such as Ohio State, Penn State, or Michigan State, allowing them to effectively pad their record with wins over the likes of Indiana (45-17), Maryland (38-13), and Purdue (17-9), while hardly going out of their comfort zone in terms of non-conference competition, battering the likes of Utah State (59-10), Florida Atlantic (31-14), and Brigham Young (40-6). All things considered, their opponents sported an aggregate record of just 71-76, or in other words a mediocre .483 Win Percentage. However, all that is in the past now, for with the opportunity to win a fourth consecutive Bowl, the Badgers could secure their thirteenth victory of the campaign, which would be a school record, marking their seventh 10-Win Season over the last nine years. As has been their calling card for ages, everything this team does begins with the Rushing Attack, which remained as prolific as ever, averaging 229.5 Yards on a healthy 5.1 Yards per Carry. In addition to Taylor’s exploits, Chryst has plenty of other options, including the likes of Bradrick Shaw (96 CAR, 365 YDS, 4 TD), Garrett Groshek (57 CAR, 294 YDS, 2 TD), and Chris James (44 CAR, 223 YDS, 1 TD), who have each made the most of their opportunities beyond a massive Offensive Line that is sure to see at least one of their number Drafted in the Spring. Their ability to control the game makes things much easier on the aforementioned Hornibrook, who has had his troubles taking care of the football, which will be a prime point of emphasis heading into tonight’s meeting with the Takeaway-happy Hurricanes. The Signal-Caller has turned the football over at least once in all but three games thus far and must be more efficient, for one mistake can prove detrimental when playing against this Defense. Ideally, the Gameplan will be keeping the ball out of his hands by relying on Taylor and their cadre of Tailbacks in exploiting Miami’s Run Defense, which has been burned on more than one occasion this year. While Wisconsin certainly struggled with Ohio State’s speed and athleticism up front, there is a precedent for success in this particular matchup; when these teams last met back in 2009’s Champs Sports Bowl, the Badgers grinded their way to a 20-14 victory by trampling the Hurricanes for 170 Yards and a pair of scores on Forty-Two Carries. The names may have changed, but the Gameplan hasn’t for Chryst, who served as that team’s Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach.
Meanwhile, a season whose beginning was prolonged due to the effects of Hurricane Irma nearly turned into a magical one for Miami (10-2, 7-2 in ACC), who managed to get off to an unbeaten 10-0 start before ultimately falling short of a spot in the College Football Playoff after back-to-back late-season defeats. In his second season at his Alma Matta, Mark Richt has the Hurricanes well ahead of schedule, making their first appearance in the Orange Bowl since 2003, back when the game was still played in the old Orange Bowl Stadium that has since been demolished. The current venue is Hard Rock Stadium, which of course serves as the Program’s Home Field, which isn’t a bad consolation prize after being left out of the Playoff. The 2017 campaign has ended a murky era for Miami, who had gone thirteen straight seasons without at least ten wins, marked by a slew of Head Coaching Changes, yet another scandal that placed the Program on Probation, and the thing that the fan base hates the most, the absence of their beloved swag. Strangely enough, that concept would make it’s grand return in the most unlikely of forms: a piece of gaudy jewelry adorned on the sidelines by any player that just recorded a Takeaway. Is it a cheesy gimmick? Absolutely. But, we’ll be damned if it hasn’t inspired a host of big plays. Simply put, the Turnover Chain has not only restored Miami’s swag, it’s restored their attitude, along with their credibility in the eyes of the national audience, which had previously been at an all-time low for the better part of a decade. On the season Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz’s unit has totaled a ridiculous Thirty Takeaways thus far, including Seventeen Interceptions and Thirteen Recovered Fumbles, with at least two in all but three of their outings this season. Hell, they even went a remarkable four games in a row registering Four Turnovers, which is as rare as it sounds. Sixteen different players have at least Takeaway to their name, led by All-ACC Defensive Back Jaquan Johnson (85 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 4 INT, 1 TD, 4 PD, 2 FF, 2 FR), who has amassed six thus far, even returning an Interception for a Touchdown. While it certainly helps having such opportunistic ball hawks, a lot of their opportunities have been possible due to the constant havoc that the Defensive Front has wrecked in the trenches; the ‘Canes have accumulated 104 Tackles for Loss, including 42.0 Sacks, with five of their number raking in at least at last ten Tackles for Loss. However, while that aggressiveness has rewarded them with countless big plays, it’s also opened them to gaping holes against the Run, which they should be on high alert for against Wisconsin. Miami has allowed an average of 147.5 Rushing Yards on 3.6 Yards per Carry thus far, though they have shown improvement in this regard down the stretch, limiting the opposition to 107.4 Yards per Game against stiffer competition such as Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and most recently Clemson. With all that said, all those Turnovers haven’t been able to cure all their ills, for while the Defense needs it’s own tour bus, the Offense has been inconsistent throughout the term, with injuries robbing them of a number of key contributors late in the season. Efficient is not the word to describe this unit, particularly with Malik Rosier (54.6%, 2,908 YDS, 7.5 Y/A, 25 TD, 11 INT) at Quarterback; after waiting two years to be the Starter, the Junior excelled in pushing the football downfield, but found great difficulty with the shorter to intermediate routes, which rely far more on timing and rhythm. It became crystal clear that he was unable to carry the team without the defensive exploits of his teammates, struggling mightily in their two losses to close out the season against Pittsburgh (24-14) and Clemson (38-3), completing a miserable 46.0% of his Attempts for 148.5 Yards on 4.7 Yards per Attempt, with Two Touchdowns and Interceptions apiece. Granted, he also injured his shoulder late in the loss at Pitt, and has had to play without the services of two of his most trusted targets, with Christopher Herndon (40 RE, 477 YDS, 4 TD) and Ahmmon Richards (24 REC, 439 YDS, 3 TD) out for the season with respective injuries, but the fact remains that he and this unit as a whole simply aren’t capable of carrying this team for sixty minutes. However, while Richt has plenty of work to do on this side of the ball, the AP Coach of the Year must be commended for resurrecting a program that had been muddling around for over the decade. In his two years on the job, he has ended a number of droughts, gifting Miami their first 10-Win Season since 2003, along with their first 10-Game Winning Streak since 2002, their first appearance in the ACC Championship Game since joining the conference back in 2004, and with last year’s victory in the Russell Athletic Bowl, their first Bowl Win since 2006. There’s clearly something in the water in Coral Gables, and it’s more than just a shiny piece of jewelry.