NEW YORK CITY — As the University of Wisconsin and Miami set to face off at Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl on Thursday, it’s difficult to find many similarities with last year’s Orange Bowl — the game that saw the Badgers defeat the Hurricanes for victory No. 13 of the season.
Both teams are ending massively disappointing campaigns this time around, rather than jockeying to finish in the top 10, and a cold-weather contest nearly a week out from Jan. 1 certainly doesn’t hold the same allure as a New Year’s Six bowl.
Still, Miami’s defense managed to put together an even more impressive season in 2018 — so much so that the program’s defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, earned a head coaching job at Temple two weeks ago.
Diaz remains in charge of the Hurricanes’ defense until after Thursday’s game, however, and he doesn’t anticipate an imminent departure affecting his group against the Badgers.
“To be perfectly honest,” Diaz said, "the first time Wisconsin calls an inside run, I don’t think anybody playing defense for Miami will be thinking about me or thinking about anything else other than taking on blocks and tackling that great running back."
While that’s likely true, it doesn’t mean bowl prep’s been particularly easy for Diaz.
In the days leading up to the recruiting dead period, which began Dec. 17, he needed to spend much of his time building Temple’s 2019 class of prospects. Diaz said Miami’s schedule helped him compartmentalize his duties, though. He spent Dec. 17 and 18 fully committed to prepping for UW and only missed one practice when flying to Philadelphia for the first day of the early signing period on Dec. 19.
“The way that our practice schedule worked out, it really kind of helped,” Diaz said. “There’s been a little bit of never really feeling like I’ve had to serve two masters at one time."
UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph became Pittsburgh’s interim coach for the Armed Forces Bowl following the 2014 season after current Badgers head coach Paul Chryst left the Panthers to return to Madison. Rudolph said the fact that Miami’s head coach, Mark Richt, is remaining with the Hurricanes will limit any effect Diaz’s situation has on the team.
If so, UW’s offense will likely face a much more difficult challenge in moving the ball Thursday than it did when posting 34 points in last year’s Orange Bowl victory.
The Hurricanes entered bowl season ranked second nationally in total defense, and their 140.8 passing yards allowed per game are the fewest for any Power Five program since Alabama in 2011.
“It starts with recruiting, getting great players, and guys that can do it,” Richt said. "And then (Diaz) and his staff did a beautiful job of taking the skill sets of our players and turning them loose. We like to play an aggressive style of defense. I think every player on our defense knows that they’ve got a chance to make a play. They’re not sitting there in charge of eating up double-teams and things of that nature."
Richt also cited the Hurricanes’ turnover chain as a motivating factor in their play. Miami entered bowl season ranked 12th in the country with 24 takeaways, and the Badgers’ 23 turnovers ranks outside the top 100 of FBS teams.
The Hurricanes’ defense won’t be at 100 percent. Star defensive tackle Gerald Willis III won’t play Thursday due to a hand injury, but Diaz believes guys like Tito Odenigbo and Pat Bethel could take advantage of the chance for increased playing time.
“It’s an opportunity for some other guys who we think highly of,” Diaz said. “And now this is really their chance to shine."
Even without Willis, UW knows Miami has plenty of other ways to frustrate the Badgers’ struggling offense.
“They’ve got great talent,” Rudolph said. "They’re extremely confident in their back end, which gives them a lot of flexibility with their front seven. That group can flat-out get up the field up front. Their linebackers are experienced. They’re quick to diagnose plays, they’re quick to get there and then they’ve got about 30 different ways to mess you up inside.