To be left just outside the College Football Playoff field is a vicious thing. It happened to Miami and Wisconsin this year, which potentially makes this Saturday night Orange Bowl match between the two as bittersweet and wobbly as any New Year’s countdown could be.
The Hurricanes are particularly worrisome, coming off a 38-3 mauling by Clemson in the ACC title game and trying to refit and refuel an offense that is missing three vital touchdown-makers due to injury. With a total of 17 points scored and 149 rushing yards in the last two games, this has the look of a team that is running out of steam.
There’s something about Hard Rock Stadium, though, and the way that Stephen Ross’ fancy new LED stadium lights glint off the Turnover Chain that turn the Hurricanes into big-game party animals.
Notre Dame found that out in November. The Fighting Irish were averaging 41.3 points per game and figuring to overpower Miami physically, but the Hurricanes never were threatened in a 41-8 upset that emboldened South Florida fans to dream of the program’s golden years again and not, you know, the Al Golden years.
Is No. 6 Wisconsin the same kind of foe, with an offensive line whose smallest starter is 316 pounds and a freshman running back named Jonathan Taylor who reached 1,000 yards as quickly as Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson did in college?
That’s a Big Ten bruiser of a game plan, and it can translate into 357 rushing yards, which is what the Badgers got against FAU, or 40-plus minutes of possession time, the ultimate symbol of Wisconsin’s dominance over BYU.
There are a couple of important clues, however, that point to Wisconsin’s 12-1 record being overblown, and the pulverizing force of its offense, too.
First, the Badgers didn’t play a ranked team until their 10th game and played no one higher than No. 19 during the regular season.
Second, when it came time to claim a spot in the College Football Playoff, Wisconsin couldn’t muscle Ohio State out of the way. The Buckeyes limited Taylor to 41 yards, a season low, in the Big Ten championship game, and forced the Badgers into a desperate comeback effort that relied instead on quarterback Alex Hornibrook. The sophomore attempted 40 passes, double his usual output, and threw two interceptions in the 27-21 loss.
“They’re tougher and bigger than everybody, so come down here and just really try to run the ball down our throats,” said Miami defensive lineman Trent Harris. “We’re not going to let that happen. That’s not how we play.”
How Miami plays, when everything is popping, is with an aggressive defensive style that has running backs met by an angry mob of tacklers at both sidelines and quarterbacks hustling to throw the ball where they really don’t want to throw it.
Think of Trajan Bandy’s 65-yard interception return for a touchdown against Notre Dame. That came in the closing minute of the first half with Miami already leading 20-0, and it brought full-blown panic to the Irish sideline for the rest of the game.
Overall, what I’m looking for on Saturday night is a game similar to the one what Wisconsin and Miami played in their last meeting. It was the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, a 20-14 Badgers victory that might have come out differently if Miami could have provided quarterback Jacory Harris a little protection or at least a little run support. With an injured thumb on his throwing hand and a brace on his left leg, Harris was sacked five times that day.
A few turnovers or maybe even a defensive touchdown might be just the bonus that quarterback Malik Rosier and Miami need to outscore Wisconsin this time. The Badgers are on a three-game bowl win streak, but they’ve topped 24 points just twice in their last 14 postseason appearances.
“I like the way they play,” Miami coach Mark Richt said. “They know what they’re doing to do. They’re going to come after you. There’s not a lot of mystery for anybody. It’s kind of a matter of who’s tough enough to win this game. Who’s disciplined enough to win this game. Who’s resilient enough to win this game. It’s been a great formula for them.”
Rosier hinted this week that Richt and the Hurricanes might start leaning on that power running style more in 2018, based on the addition of fullback Realus George during the recent early signing period.
“Coach Richt is very excited about the fullback coming in,” Rosier said. “We were watching practice tape and he was like, ‘Guys, get ready, we’re going back to the I-formation.’ … I know coach Richt loves the downhill, very physical running game and he wants to get back to that.”
For now, though, it’s trying to get enough out of Travis Homer, who has done well in relief of injured rushing leader Mark Walton, and striving to squeeze a few big gainers out of the pass targets who have filled in for Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon.
It won’t be easy, but it is doable, just like the Notre Dame game was doable.
Any way you slice it, Miami must get used to this kind of game. From Clemson to Wisconsin and, in next season’s opener, LSU. That’s a lineup the old Hurricanes would have savored, all in a row, and it will say if this new Miami surge has legs.