MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — When the University of Wisconsin football team plays a bowl game against a highly ranked opponent from the deep South or far West, the storyline is always the same.
Power versus speed.
Saturday night’s Orange Bowl game between sixth-ranked UW and 11th-ranked Miami (Fla.) at Hard Rock Stadium is no different.
The Badgers (12-1) are viewed as the plodding, run-oriented Big Ten Conference team that is praying it can keep pace with the speed-based spread offense of the ACC runner-up Hurricanes (11-2). The story keeps repeating itself because this is the 13th time in its past 15 bowls that UW will play a team from the SEC, Pac-12 or ACC.
But all the talk about power versus speed misses the point because football games have always been determined by the battle in the trenches. Whichever team wins the line of scrimmage usually wins the game and UW versus Miami will be decided the same way.
“You can have all the speed and power in the world,” defensive end Alec James said, “but it all comes down to doing your job.”
The Badgers did their job well in winning their first 12 games this season. In the 13th, they failed to do their job and lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. Facing the fastest team they had seen all season, they lost the battle up front on both sides of the ball.
Miami might not have the overwhelming talent of Ohio State, but it has the same kind of speed, dual-threat quarterback, home run hitting-tailback and athletic, aggressive front seven on defense. It is imperative that UW win the line of scrimmage tonight.
“It’s everything,” guard Beau Benzschawel said. “Not only just to control the game, but to send a message of what kind of game it is, to show what kind of game it’s going to be, to see if they want to hang around. It’s going to be a fist fight, just like it always is for us.”
If nothing else, the Ohio State loss gave UW a sneak preview of what to expect from Miami.
Ohio State’s defense used its quickness to attack the line of scrimmage and get UW’s offensive line on its heels for the first time. With the line getting little movement, UW had 60 yards rushing on 32 carries, including 41 yards on 15 carries by freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor.
That put too much of a load on turnover-prone quarterback Alex Hornibrook, a plan Miami surely will try to duplicate with a deep front that leads the FBS in sacks per game at 3.58.
“All of them are athletic, fast, very physical, especially the linebackers,” tackle Michael Deiter said. “They don’t think twice about what they see. They go attack. ... Their whole defensive front can really get after the passer, but they’re also stout in the run, very physical.”
One thing Miami’s defense does is generate turnovers. Its “turnover chain” went viral because the defense has forced 30 turnovers, tied for second in the FBS. That’s a red flag for Hornibrook, who has thrown 15 interceptions.
Still, the Badgers hope to put the lessons they learned against Ohio State to use and control the line of scrimmage against Miami.
“You’ve got to be smart,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “Teams work hard and they try to take certain things away from you. You’ve got to keep them off-balance a little bit. But winning up front, whatever we ask them to do, whether it’s pass protecting and giving ‘Horni’ time and giving our receivers a chance to separate, or whether we’re pounding the ball, you’ve got to pick up movement and pick up stunts and still play with the physicality to set the line of scrimmage. No question, it’s got to happen.”
UW’s defense also had a learning experience against Ohio State. It gave up four big plays — two runs, two passes — that accounted for 271 of the Buckeyes’ 449 yards. Three of those occurred in the first half, when UW made critical mistakes against Ohio State’s speed. The Badgers adjusted in the second half, but it was too late.
In that game, Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett ran and passed for 271 yards and tailback J.K. Dobbins rushed for 174 against a defense that entered the game ranked No. 1 in the nation. Miami quarterback Malik Rosier doesn’t have Barrett’s size but he’s shiftier and hurts opponents with his arm and his legs. Miami tailback Travis Homer has breakaway ability just like Dobbins.
“They’re similar to Ohio State scheme-wise and they’re very athletic,” linebacker Garret Dooley said. “They’re a team that if they get into open space they can definitely make you miss. They have a lot of guys who are burners and can run away from you. We have to make sure we’re all flying around and gang tackling.”
The Badgers will try to take away the run first, in part because Miami is without two of its top three receivers and Rosier has thrown interceptions when pressured. The Hurricanes offensive line has been a problem area, which is why UW’s front seven must return to its dominant form.
“Our front seven has done a tremendous job all year and it has to happen again,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “There’s no secret to that. That’s how football is won and lost in a lot of games. We feel great about our matchups with our D-line and our linebackers. You’ve got to go out there and execute on game day.”
Speed or no speed, that’s how it always is in football.