The Wisconsin football team deplaned at Miami International Airport on Sunday and found palm trees bristling in the 75-degree Christmas Eve heat under fading blue skies punctuated by feathery pink clouds. It was quite different from the Badgers’ home of Madison, Wisconsin, where the the forecast for Nochebuena was eight degrees with snow.
That was one reason that players smiled and embraced the setting sun as they disembarked their Atlas Air Boeing 747 in gray sweatsuits and waddled to their buses carrying complimentary oranges around 6 p.m.
“We actually were delayed because we were defrosting the plane,” senior tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “So it’s nice.”
The other main reason was obvious. Despite most players having to leave their families and friends behind for the holidays to travel for the Orange Bowl, which pits the No. 6 Badgers (12-1) against the hometown No. 10 Miami Hurricanes (10-2) on Saturday at 8 p.m., they want to play in this game.
“It’s great to be here,” coach Paul Chryst said as the team motorcade roared in the background. “We’re excited to be a part of the Orange Bowl.”
This group of Badgers is the first to ever play in the Orange Bowl, and a win would be the program’s second in a row in a New Year’s Six Bowl after it beat Western Michigan in last season’s Cotton Bowl. Plus, it would mean spoiling a reawakening for the Hurricanes, who are hoping to end the season with a win after losing their two most recent games.
Wisconsin also suffered its only loss of 2017 in its most recent game — the Big 10 Championship against Ohio State — which the Badgers lost 27-21 and likely missed out on a spot in the College Football Playoff as a result. Beating Miami would be a way to quell questions about what could have been.
“We didn’t win it,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said of the Big 10 title, “but we have to do what we can to finish the season strong.”
Here’s what to know about the Badgers heading into the matchup:
▪ Offense: Led by freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, UW ranks 29th in scoring and 49th in yards nationally. While neither of those statistics are game changers, they’re both better than Miami, which ranks 56th in scoring and 57th in yards.
The Badgers are especially potent on the ground, where they rank 21st nationally compared with 96th passing. Expect a heavy dose of Taylor to try and build on that.
The one area of offense where the Hurricanes have a clear advantage is in the red zone, where Miami ranks 11th in conversion percentage while Wisconsin places 66th.
▪ Defense: Wisconsin under third-year coach Chryst has forged an identity on defense.
The Badgers rank second in rushing defense, fourth in passing defense and third in scoring defense at 13.2 points allowed per game.
The success against both the run and pass makes Wisconsin the nation’s best at yards allowed per game with 253.2. Miami will need to find a way to penetrate that crust to claim its first Orange Bowl title since 2004.
▪ Players to watch: The aforementioned Taylor and his 1,847 yards rank fourth in the country and are the most among freshmen.
Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is also a player to watch. The southpaw struggled against the Buckeyes, tossing no touchdowns and two interceptions on 19-of-40 passing. How he responds could be key in determining the game’s outcome.
▪ Local connections: Wisconsin features nine players from the state of Florida, including five from Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Among the most prominent is Boyd Anderson alum Derrick Tindal, a corner who’s notched two interceptions this year and also returns kicks. Wideout George Rushing (Cardinal Gibbons), corner Faion Hicks (Flanagan) and corner Dontye Carriere-Williams (St.Thomas Aquinas) form the rest of UW’s South Florida contingent along with junior wideout Paul Jackson, a Miami Gardens native who played high school football in Ohio.