By: Rex Sheild
For the second time in as many years, the Wisconsin Badgers will play in a New Year’s Six Bowl after losing in the Big Ten Championship Game. Similarly both bowl opponents had/have a gimmick of sorts and I can’t decide which one is more annoying - Western Michigan’s “Row the Boat” (since transferred to Minnesota), or Miami’s Turnover Chain? Regardless, the Badgers will be playing a legitimate road game when they face off against the Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.
And to make matters worse, if/when Alex Hornibrook throws an interception (more on this later), we will be succumbed to constant shots of the Turnover Chain on the particular player and/or the Miami fans in the stands that are donning Turnover Chain t-shirts and/or plastic paraphernalia. So sticking with matters that ESPN booth announcers (Steve Levy and Brian Griese) may more than likely beat to the ground during Saturday’s contest, or at the very least acknowledge, insofar as the overlap between Miami and Wisconsin is concerned, here is a non-exhaustive list in no particular order:
These two teams last met in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl, a game in which UW won, 20-14;
Both head coaches played quarterback at their respective schools and are some of the few Division-1 head coaches that are at the helm of their alma maters;
Donna Shala served in academic administrative roles at both schools: UW’s chancellor from 1988 to 1993; Miami’s president from 2001 to 2015;
Miami reportedly courted then-UW head coach Barry Alvarez in 1995 and 2000;
Miami running backs coach and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown previously served as the running backs coach at UW; and
There is no overlap here necessarily but don’t be surprised to hear the following, at least to a certain extent: First and foremost, Miami will be BACK if it wins and has greatly added to its previous-barren talent cupboard; Wisconsin is a gritty, nose-to-the-grindstone, recruit-and-develop program that is filled with walk-ons, farm boys and players that were not offered scholarships by the big-time programs. And if a UW player that grew up in Florida makes a big play, or a play at all, you better believe Levy will let you know. “Derrick Tindal with another pass breakup! You know, Brian, Tindal grew up about 40 minutes from here, in Fort Lauderdale, and was not offered a scholarship by Miami. You can tell he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder today.”
BONUS: Shawn Eichorst served in athletic administrative roles at both schools: Senior Associate AD then Executive Associate AD then Deputy AD at Wisconsin from 2006 to 2011; AD at Miami from 2011 to 2012.
*Please don’t turn this into a drinking game.*
Now, onto the actual game preview …
Led by second-year head coach Mark Richt, the Hurricanes have won 10 games for the first time since 2003 and are looking to win back-to-back bowl games since 2003-2004. The 2003 season is also the last time that they have played in the Orange Bowl. However, Miami has lost two-straight contests after starting the season 10-0 (Pittsburgh on the road and Clemson in the ACC Championship Game). In those games, it was outscored 62 to 17.
From a broader perspective, the ‘Canes’ offense was nothing to write home about. Their 29.5 points per game ranked tied for 59th. In seven games at Hard Rock Stadium, however, they averaged nearly 37 points. Furthermore, Miami’s Offensive S&P+ is ranked 39th, which is just ahead of Wisconsin’s Offensive S&P+ (44th). Notwithstanding that, the Badgers outgained and outrushed each of their regular season opponents.
Junior gunslinger Malik Rosier did not fare consistently well during his first year as a starter. While his 2,917 passing yards were 31st-best in the country, his 54.8 completion percentage was 96th in the country. In 12 games, Rosier faced off against seven top-50 ranked defenses in terms of passing efficiency – Clemson (6th); Virginia Tech (14th); Florida State (15th); Duke (24th); Toledo (26th); Virginia (33rd); and Notre Dame (37th). As such, his completion percentage (55.5%) exceeded his season total, which was majorly boosted by his performance against Toledo, completing 75% of his passes.
However, he threw an interception in every game, except one, for a total of ten. He also threw for under 200 yards in three of those seven contests. (His seven-game average was 216.6 passing yards.) So with all of that in mind, the Badgers’ defense will be the Alabama native’s toughest defensive test thus far. In fact, UW ranks first in the entire country in the following categories: defensive pass efficiency; S&P+; total defense; and touchdowns scored.
Rosier is also a threat on the ground, as he carried the ball 122 times for 427 yards and five touchdowns. Most, if not all, of his yards came on designed quarterback draws or on zone reads. During the first two games of the season, Rosier only rushed the ball eight times - four in each game - but over the next 10 contests, he averaged over 11 carries per game. Therefore, I would expect 6-foot-1 signal caller to be a fixture in the run game against the Badgers.
Since junior running back Mark Walton suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Florida State on October 7, sophomore Travis Homer has been the alpha dog for this unit. He has rushed for 907 yards and seven touchdowns on 151 carries, an average of 113.4 yards and 18.8 carries per game. Not to mention, he has shown his versatility out of the backfield by catching 18 balls for 219 yards and one score.
Homer’s best performances were against Georgia Tech (20 carries/170 yards/1 touchdown; 2 receptions/18 yards/1 touchdown) and Notre Dame (18 carries/146 yards). Of note, Georgia Tech was Homer’s first game as the true starter. Nevertheless, what really allowed Homer to get to the second level and beyond were his patience, ability to make tacklers miss, speed once he hit the hole and taking what the defense gave him.
While Homer is the lead back through and through for the Hurricanes, keep an eye out for freshman Deejay Dallas. He originally started the season in the wide receivers room but moved to running back after the Walton’s injury. And while the former four-star recruit only rushed for two touchdowns on the season, both of which came against Notre Dame, he led the team with 44 rush yards against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Additionally, if and when Miami showcases its wildcat formation, the former four-star recruit will surely be used. In fact, he attempted a pass from the wildcat formation against Virginia Tech.
The Badgers’ defense has held in check opposing running backs throughout the season. Their rushing defense is ranked second (92.6 yards per game), and they have only allowed five rushing touchdowns, which led the country. Finally, the unit’s Defensive Rushing S&P+ of 135.1 was good for seventh. However, the Badgers are coming off of their worst defensive performance against the run after allowing the Buckeyes to amass 238 yards on 42 carries, 174 yards of which came from freshman J.K. Dobbins.
By the same token, 130 of Dobbins’ 174 yards came on two plays: a 77-yard run early in the second quarter and a 53-yard run on Ohio State’s second possession of the second half. The former play — a three-wide receiver set with trips left — was sprung by a missed tackle at the line of scrimmage by Conor Sheehy; the latter play — another three-wide receiver set with a bunch formation to the right — came after Sheehy hesitated on the zone read by J.T. Barrett and a couple other Badger defenders could not get off their blocks in time.
Miami, a team that sports the spread offense, must have been salivating after watching that tape. So let’s see if defensive coordinator Jim Leonard & Co. make the necessary adjustments and correct the little things that made a huge difference against the Buckeyes. If so, the Badgers should return to form.
Wide Receiver/Tight ends
Fortunately for UW’s secondary, but unfortunately for Miami, the Hurricanes’ crop of wide receivers are not at full strength. Ahmmon Richards, who is second on the team in receiving yards (439) and third in receptions (24), will not play because of a knee injury. That leaves the following wide receivers to fill Richards’ void: 5-foot-10 true freshman Jeff Thomas (16 receptions, 326 yards, 2 touchdowns); 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore Lawrence Cager (12 receptions, 161 yards, 2 touchdowns); 6-foot-4 redshirt junior Darrell Langham (11 receptions, 209 yards, 2 touchdowns); and 6-foot-3 redshirt junior Dayall Harris (10 receptions, 92 yards, 2 touchdowns).
The Hurricanes will also be without their star tight end, Christopher Herndon IV, who suffered a knee injury against Pittsburgh. The Georgia native was second on the team receptions (40), receiving yards (477) and receiving touchdowns (4). His replacement, Michael Irvin II, has only caught eight passes, three of which were against Clemson in the team’s last game.
Of course, I would be remiss in not highlighting the Hurricanes’ top offensive threat, Braxton Berrios. The North Carolina native registered 51 receptions for 625 yards and nine touchdowns. His nine touchdowns were tied for 21st in the country. Thus, in terms of receiving touchdowns, Berrios will be the second-best wide receiver that UW will face off against this season behind Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan, Jr., who scored 10 receiving touchdowns. As a reference point, Morgan caught four passes for 115 yards and one touchdown when he played against Badgers on October 7.
Berrios’ best game in the 2017 was against Florida State, one in which he recorded two touchdowns and eight catches for 90 yards. (That game was his only game with more than one touchdown.) There, according to game film available on DraftBreakdown, he was primarily matched up against slot cornerback Kyle Meyers second-string strong safety A.J. Westbrook, Jr. As such, Berrios exclusively lined up in the slot and did so for a majority of the season, if not the entire season. In that game as well as in the Clemson game, the Hurricanes ran some designed bubble screens for the 5’9” wide receiver.
Don’t be surprised if Brown dials up more of the same, especially considering UW’s lackluster effort against such plays in the Big Ten title game. From the select game footage I watched on Miami, it dabbled quite frequently with four wide receiver sets from the shotgun - whether that was two on each side, trips to the right or left, or a bunch formation with Berrios as the back man. Not to mention, in one game in particular (Syracuse), the Hurricanes went with a five wide receiver set on a handful of plays as they split Homer out and utilized the bubble screen as shown below.
Altogether, UW needs to handle these formations, and the bubble screens for that matter, much better than it did against the Buckeyes in order to keep Miami’s offense in check and avoid giving up the big plays. With that being said, I think UW’s secondary matches up well against Miami’s wide receivers. It helps that this year’s two starting cornerbacks, Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson, may be the program’s best duo in quite some time. Tindal went the entire season (400 snaps) without allowing a touchdown. Nelson, who surprisingly did not record an interception during the first 13 games, leads the nation in pass breakups with 20. That figure is the fourth-most pass breakups in a single season since 2005; he needs three pass breakups to tie Houston CB William Jackson III’s 2015 record of 23 pass breakups.
The biggest question that I have: who will defensive coordinator Jim Leonard position across from Berrios? Let’s hope it’s not Joe Ferguson. In all seriousness, I would expect Dontye Carriere-Williams — a Miami native that was not offered a scholarship by the ‘Canes (see opening paragraph) — to spend some time lined up against Berrios, simply given that both players primarily play in the slot. Of note, Carriere-Williams has not recorded a pass breakup since the October 28 game against Illinois after recording six pass breakups through the first eight games.
In the back end of the secondary, UW will enjoy a healthy D’Cota Dixon, whose 55 tackles are tied for third on the team. “We haven’t had D’Cota Dixon 100% for a long time,” Leonhard said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “To gain him back is going to be huge for this defense.” Alongside Dixon, of course, is senior Natrell Jamerson, who was a Pro Football Focus All-American Second-Team honoree. At one point this season Jamerson did not miss a single tackle on 30 attempts through over 500 snaps.
The big uglies are no doubt led by senior left tackle KC McDermott, who took home ACC All-Conference Third-Team and PFF All-ACC First-Team honors, and junior right tackle Tyree St. Louis, who has made 20 straight starts at the position. In terms of pass blocking efficiency, both tackles fared exceptionally well among their conference brethrens. McDermott’s 97.9 pass blocking efficiency figure and St. Louis’s 97.6 figure were ranked third and sixth, respectively, according to PFF. But as a whole, the unit struggled this season. Most notably, they allowed 26 sacks (over two per game) in 2017, which tied them for 72th in the country.
And when it comes to battling in the trenches, the unit was downright putrid. Their 52.4% Power Success Rate* is ranked 128th. Their 20.1% Stuff Rate** is marginally better, but it still ranks 80th. On the flip side, the Wisconsin defensive line’s Power Success Rate (92nd) and Stuff Rate (70th) are nothing to write home about, either. Thus, it is anyone’s guess which unit will win in the trenches.
*Football Outsiders defines Power Success Rate as the “percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.”
**Football Outsiders defineds Stuff Rate as the “percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.”
Defensive line & Linebackers
The defensive line is by far the Miami’s best unit. The biggest thing that stands out to me about Miami’s defensive line is the pressure that they get on the quarterback. For starters, the defense has recorded 43 sacks on the season, most in the NCAA. Comparatively, Wisconsin’s offensive line has allowed 20 sacks and over 1.5 per game. Another advantage for the Hurricanes is their depth at multiple positions up front.
On the outside they are led by All-ACC third-team selection Trent Harris, who led the team in sacks with 8.5 and tied for second in tackles for loss with 10.5. Joining Harris on the outside are Joe Jackson and Chad Thomas. Jackson tallied 50 tackles (5th), 10.5 TFL (t2nd), 6.5 sacks (2nd) and 40 total QB pressures. His total QB pressures ranked second in the conference. Thomas registered 10.5 TFL while contributing 3.5 sacks (t3rd). PFF All-ACC First-Team selection defensive tackle RJ McIntosh led the team in TFL (12.5) and was second on the team in passes defended (7), the latter of which is pretty outstanding for a defensive tackle. Rounding out Miami’s defensive front is junior Kendrick Norton, who possesses a massive frame at 6-foot-3, 318 pounds. He recorded 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and 23 tackles.
All-ACC second-team linebacker Shaquille Quarterman registered 76 total tackles, which was second on the team by a considerable margin. He also contributed six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 4 pass deflections. Sophomore Michael Pinckney was third on the team in tackles with 63. The former ESPN Freshman All-American made his presence felt in the backfield more often than not as well, recording 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
The front seven has given up 146.1 rush yards per game, good for 43rd in the country, to go along with 3.53 yards per carry. That does not bode particularly well for the Hurricanes, as Wisconsin’s 229.2 rush yards per game is ranked 21st. Similarly the Hurricanes defense’s Rush S&P+ (107.7) is ranked 42nd, whereas the Badgers’ Rush S&P+ (115.5) is ranked 22nd. The one bright spot surrounding the Miami’s run defense is its ability to stop ball carriers at the line of scrimmage, ranking 18th in STUFF rate (23.8%) and tied for first in tackles for loss per game (8.8). But UW’s offensive line should be able to stand its own in the trenches; its STUFF rate of 16.6% is good for 28th in the country.
Altogether, Miami will need to produce sound, fundamental tackling against UW’s Jonathan Taylor; the freshman leads all FBS running backs in yards after contact with 1,281.
The biggest playmaker in the secondary is junior safety Jaquan Johnson. The All-ACC second-team honoree led the team in tackles (85), tied for first in fumble recoveries (2), and tied for first in interceptions (4). Further, he occasionally plays a hybrid-type role within the Miami defense, lining up parallel with the other linebackers or just beyond. Above all, he possesses great closing speed and is not afraid to lower his shoulder, whether that is against a wide receiver across the middle or at the line of scrimmage.
Alongside Johnson is junior Sheldrick Redwine, who moved from cornerback to safety during spring practices. Redwine registered six passes defended and two interceptions to go along with 53 tackles. His best game of the 2017 campaign came against Clemson in the ACC Championship game, recording eight total tackles, one tackle for loss and one forced fumble. Starting at cornerback are Malek Young, who recorded two interceptions in 2017, and Michael Jackson, who tied for first on the team in interceptions with four. Young also led the team with eight passes defended. True freshman cornerback Trajan Brandy saw action in every single game this season.
All three cornerbacks were ranked in the top eight among ACC cornerbacks in terms of lowest passer rating when targeted, according to PFF. Jackson was 1st (32.6), Bandy was 4th (42.4) and Young was 8th (48.6). The unit as a whole ranked 18th in defensive passing efficiency and 25th in Passing S&P+. Finally, the Hurricanes intercepted opposing quarterbacks 17 times this year, which tied them for 12th.
To that end I would not be surprised if Miami intercepts QB Alex Hornibrook at least once. After all, the sophomore gunslinger has thrown 15 interceptions during his first full year as a starter. And guess where that places him among FBS quarterbacks? Tied for 109th. Woof city. But, hey, Hornibrook was the most accurate B1G quarterback when he completed deep passes, registering a 56.1% adjusted completion rate. While the Pennsylvania native threw the ball 40 times against Ohio State in the B1G Championship Game, I do not expect him to throw the ball as frequently against Miami. In fact, I expect Hornibrook to throw between 17 and 24 passes. Let’s dissect this further.
Hornibrook has thrown between 17 and 19 passes in seven games this season; between 20 and 24 passes in four games; and more than 25 passes in two games. As such, his best completion percentage on average came when he throws between 17 and 19 passes per game (65.69%). Second is when he throws between 20 and 24 passes (62.98%) and last is when he throws more than 25 passes (52.30%). That is not shocking, really, because a quarterback’s completion percentage is going to gradually decrease given a greater sample size. But what is shocking, at least to me, is the 10 percent drop from 20-24 passes to 25+ passes. Additionally, his best Adjusted QBR on average came when he threw between 20 and 24 passes (70.9), while he registered a 60.5 Adjusted QBR and 53.1 Adjusted QBR on average when he threw between 17 and 19 passes and more than 25 passes, respectively.
Hornibrook’s top target, Troy Fumagalli has not eclipsed 50 receiving yards in a single game over the last six and has only scored one touchdowns during that span. And among the three freshmen wide receivers, they need to continue to make strides to make it easier on Hornibrook. Danny Davis III played quite well against the Buckeyes, recording three receptions for 50 yards. AJ Taylor and Kendrick Pryor, however, combined for three receptions and 22 yards in that game. To the contrary, against Minnesota the three youngsters combined for 11 receptions for 131 yards. Obviously Minnesota’s secondary is nothing compared to Ohio State’s, but the point is that the trio, collectively, cannot no-show against the Hurricanes.
I agree with Rich and Max that it will be a low-scoring game. To that end, I think that the Badgers will simply make more plays down the stretch in critical moments, akin to what they did in last year’s bowl game.