TAMPA — The last time Wisconsin played a regular season game in the Sunshine State a gallon of gas averaged 91 cents, Billboard magazine’s top hit was “Faith” by George Michael, Ronald Reagan was president and Notre Dame won its most recent national championship.
The year was 1988, which was a rather forgetful season during a forgetful era for the Badgers. A 23-3 loss at what was top-ranked Miami on September 24 dropped Don Morton’s team to 0-3 in what would be a 1-10 campaign. It was the mid-point of a five-year stretch (1986-90) in which Wisconsin went 10-46.
Barry Alvarez, who is currently Wisconsin’s athletic director and who was an assistant on that Fighting Irish national title team in 1988, would turn around a program that has had just two losing seasons in the past 26 years. The Badgers went 8-5 last year.
Friday night’s game at Raymond James Stadium (7 ET, ESPN) will mark the second meeting between USF and (No. 19/17) Wisconsin, which has played 11 bowl games in the state and will kick off its 131 season. The Bulls traveled to Madison in 2014 and lost, 27-10. Badgers running back Melvin Gordon ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. He capped a season in which he was second in Heisman voting by ringing in the new year with an Outback-bowl record 251 yards rushing in the Badgers’ overtime win against Auburn at Ray Jay.
It would not shock if Wisconsin’s 2019 Heisman candidate, Jonathan Taylor, had a similar outing Friday. After all, the junior running back has reached the 200-yard plateau eight times in his 27-game career. Included was 205-yard effort in UW’s 35-3 throttling of Miami in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl.
Taylor, the 2018 Doak Walker Award winner as the nation’s top running back, has compiled 4,171 career rushing yards. That is the best total in a player’s first two seasons, topping Herschel Walker’s 3,741 with Georgia in 1980-81.
“It is a really well-coached football team and they know what their identity is,” said USF coach Charlie Strong. “Jonathan Taylor is one of the best running backs in the country, one of the guys getting a lot of Heisman talk because he has really proven it the last two years.”
Taylor, who checks in at 5-foot-11 and 219 pounds, will get his yards. The key is for the Bulls to not allow him to dictate the outcome by ripping off one big run after another. That means the defense must show marked improvement out of the gate after allowing an alarming 248 yards rushing per game in 2018. Only seven of the 129 qualifying Football Bowl Subdivision programs allowed more rushing yards.
“We have to play great defense,” said Strong. “We are going to have to tackle well. If you look at a lot of the explosive runs that Taylor has had, he broke a lot of tackles at the line of scrimmage and he’s fast enough where he can outrun the second level.”
Defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary is pleased with how his unit progressed during fall camp. While he likes the contributions made by transfers and freshmen, it is the group of returning players that has made a noticeable difference.
“I think the players that are returning have a different level of focus compared to last year and I really do like where we are at defensively right now,” said Jean-Mary, whose unit will employ the services of redshirt junior corner and North Carolina transfer K.J Sails, who on Wednesday was cleared to play.
The hope is among the green and gold faithful, that Wisconsin’s defense will have some trouble keeping up with the Bulls.
An unmistakable air of optimism has surrounded a program that is coming off a season in which it lost its last six games following a 7-0 start. Strong made five staff changes with the most notable being the hiring of offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell, the former Florida quarterback and head coach at 2018 Division-II national champion runner-up Valdosta State. The Blazers averaged 52 points per game last season.
The energy continued to build through fall camp and there is a sense of excitement surrounding the new-look offense.
“Guys are fully understanding their responsibilities in this offense and each individual has taken on their role to make this thing go,” said senior quarterback Blake Barnett, entering his second season at the helm for USF. “There are a lot of moving parts to it, but we have seen it come together and when it does it can be real special.”
A lot falls on Barnett’s shoulders when it comes to operating the offense. On Wednesday, Bell expressed how pleased he is with the quarterback’s increased understanding of an expansive playbook.
“I really like the progress he has made,” he said. “In the spring he was trying to learn everything and early in camp he was sort of a different player. He knows what we have to get done and I just like how comfortable he feels right now with what we are trying to do. So now, let’s go out and play and I think everybody else will follow suit.”
Barnett does not lack for weapons. There’s a 1,000-yard running back in Jordan Cronkrite, an electric slot receiver in Johnny Ford, who moved from running back, and a healthy Randall St. Felix (20.6 yards per catch in ’18) who was hindered by injury as a freshman last season. Mitchell Wilcox is one of the country’s top tight ends and and all five starters on the offensive line started at least four games last season.
Indeed, it’s time to raise the curtain on 2019.
“We’re excited,” said Barnett. “For us to be able to play (Wisconsin) is a great opportunity for this program. It’s a really great team coming in to play us and it something that we are really looking forward to and taking on the challenge.”
The Bulls are 2-5 all-time against Big Ten teams with both wins against Illinois, in 2017 and 2018…..USF has a five-game winning streak against Power Five opponents…..The Bulls are 0-3 against ranked opponents under Charlie Strong and 11-25 all-time, including 7-12 at home…..With Nico Sawtelle injured, junior and Oklahoma State transfer Patrick Macon will start at middle linebacker. Sawtelle missed the second of last season with neck and shoulder injuries. ….Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Sebastien Sainterling was a teammate of Wisconsin freshman corner James Williams at Chaminade-Madonna High in Hollywood.
Coach Paul Chryst named Jack Coan the starting quarterback on Monday. The junior started the final four games of 2018 in place of the injured and since-transferred (FSU) Alex Hornibrook…..Chryst was the head coach at Pitt in 2012 when the Bulls lost to the Panthers, 27-3 at Raymond James Stadium in what was the final Big East game…..In addition to Miami in 1988, the only other regular season game the Badgers have played in Florida was a 20-0 win over the Hurricanes in 1958.
See USF football videos on Tom Layberger’s Twitter account. Tom is also a contributing sports writer to forbes.com