University of Miami

Here’s how the Miami Hurricanes’ pass defense went wrong in the Orange Bowl

Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver A.J. Taylor (4) scores on a pass reception in the end zone as Miami Hurricanes defensive back Sheldrick Redwine (22) defends in the second quarter on Saturday.
Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver A.J. Taylor (4) scores on a pass reception in the end zone as Miami Hurricanes defensive back Sheldrick Redwine (22) defends in the second quarter on Saturday. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Miami was expecting Georgia Tech but got Oklahoma.

In other words, the 10th-ranked Hurricanes, who lost the Orange Bowl 34-24 to the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium, never would’ve thought that their defense would get beat by sophomore Alex Hornibrook, a pedestrian passer who was named the game’s MVP.

After all, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor entered the game with 1,847 yards and broke NFL star Adrian Peterson’s NCAA rushing record for a freshman in the game. Miami was surely expecting a ground attack, a la Georgia Tech.

On Saturday, however, Hornibrook made like Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning Baker Mayfield, completing 23-of-34 passes for a season-best 258 yards, a career-best four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Badgers (13-1) completed the first 13-win season in program history.

“He was throwing darts,” Miami coach Mark Richt said of Hornibrook. “He threw it on the money into a lot of tight coverage. He made a lot of back-shoulder throws. His line gave him time to do that, and we played a lot of man coverage.”

Added Canes star safety Jaquan Johnson: “[Hornibrook] had one or two throws behind receivers. But other than that, he was dead-on all night.”

The same cannot be said about the Hurricanes.

Miami (10-3) had been led by its defense virtually all season. But the Hurricanes lost their final three games of the season, and Hornibrook took advantage of a rare flaw in Miami’s defense:

Time after time, Hornibrook was able to step up into the pocket, with no defenders in front to pressure him or obstruct his view of his receivers. Miami’s linemen were unable to stay in their lanes, and Hornibrook took advantage.

“He’s a quarterback who likes to step up when he feels pressure,” Canes defensive end Joe Jackson said. “His first intention is to throw, not to run. That’s how he got a lot of big plays.”

Hornibrook praised his offensive line, which includes three All-Americans.

“Whether the (Miami) defensive line was going upfield or not,” he said, “[My blockers] gave me room to step up on all those passes.”

Three of Hornibrook’s touchdown passes went to freshman Danny Davis, who entered the game with just two scores all season.

Davis caught five passes for 56 yards, and teammate AJ Taylor dominated the Canes with eight grabs for 105 yards and one score. Jonathan Taylor was good – he ran for 130 yards and a 5.0 average.

But one indication of how lopsided the events were as opposed to expectations is this stat: Wisconsin earned just seven first downs rushing but 15 through the air.

“Every time we were in press coverage, they’would run some type of fade, and (Hornibrook) would put it on him,” Richt said. “Those were most of the touchdowns he threw. But he was on the mark – good route-running, good concepts, good protection, good throws and good catches.”

Miami, which entered the game leading the nation with 3.58 sacks per game, got to Hornibrook three times. They also produced six tackles for losses, which was good considering the stellar Wisconsin offensive line averages just 1.5 sacks allowed per game.

Ultimately, though, the Canes produced just one turnover and got no points off that one time that they cracked open the chain box. Wisconsin simply won most of its individual matchups, Canes middle linebacker Shaq Quarterman said.

“(Hornibrook) threw in tight coverage, and their receivers made plays,” Quarterman said. “That’s what happens when you play man coverage – mano-a-mano. Somebody has to win.”

On Saturday, that somebody was Hornibrook and the Badgers passing game.

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