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Hurricanes see Orange Bowl as another chance to grow, push program forward

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As Clemson kept building on its first-quarter lead during the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game earlier this month, Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz looked up and down the Hurricanes sideline and was befuddled.

Around him, the players that had once held the No. 2 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings and had won 15 consecutive games dating back to last season appeared to be wide-eyed and stunned.

It was clear the defending national champion Tigers were comfortable on the championship stage. The Hurricanes, making their first appearance in the conference title game, were not.

Ultimately, Clemson wore down the Hurricanes, handing them a humbling 38-3 loss that eliminated them from the national championship picture but set them up for another big moment: Saturday’s Orange Bowl showdown with No. 6 Wisconsin.

For the Hurricanes, it’s a chance to play in one of the modern-era New Year’s Six bowl games for the first time in more than a decade and their first chance to play in the Orange Bowl, specifically, since 2003. And entering the game, Diaz, coach Mark Richt and the rest of the Hurricanes hope it will be another opportunity to continue pushing the program forward as Miami looks to be the consistently successful power it once was.

“We're in a bowl that's one of the greatest bowls - well, it is an iconic bowl - in our country. Here we are playing in it, playing against a great team, a team that's going to challenge us in every way, shape or form, offense, defense, special teams, as coaches, the whole thing, [on] a big stage,” Richt said. “So all those experiences add up to guys that will have a greater comfort level when it comes around the second time. … For the most part we've got probably 85 percent of the team is going to come back, along with the kids we are coming in. I think the more experiences we have like that, the more you can have a comfort level with it. You can describe things all you want, but until you live them out, sometimes you can't learn a lesson until you go through the trial.”

Added Diaz: “This game is another educational process. If you want to be in these types of games, New Year’s Six bowls and play for playoffs, you have to get into these things. You have to understand there’s going to be a bunch of Wisconsin fans. It’s not going to feel exactly like our home game. Just that, no matter what happens, half the stadium goes crazy. You have to get in that environment to understand what it’s like to be able to perform in that. I think our kids will respond better Saturday than they did in Charlotte.”

The Hurricanes (10-2) aren’t the only ones looking to prove something Saturday night.

Wisconsin (12-1) was one drive away from potentially earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Badgers came up short in a 27-21 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and are now looking to secure the first 13-win season in program history.

They’ll face the challenge of having to play Miami in the Hurricanes’ home stadium, a place where Miami hasn’t lost since Oct. 2015. But the Badgers will have a potent offensive line that features a trio of All-Americans paving the way for one of the nation’s top young players, running back Jonathan Taylor. who needs just 79 yards to break Adrian Peterson’s FBS freshman rushing record of 1,925 yards set in 2004.

Miami will try to counter with an offense that has struggled in its past two games, losses to Pittsburgh and Clemson. Quarterback Malik Rosier, who revealed this week he was playing through a shoulder issue for much of the latter part of the season, enters the Orange Bowl needing just one touchdown pass to break Vinny Testaverde’s single-season record of 30, set in 1986.

Rosier will still be without playmakers Mark Walton, Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon, but senior Braxton Berrios - who has a team-high 634 receiving yards and nine touchdowns - is hoping to make the most of his final game at Hard Rock Stadium as a Hurricane.

And the rest of Miami’s returning players - including receivers Lawrence Cager and Jeff Thomas, as well as running back Travis Homer, are looking to set the tone for next season, when Miami hopes to improve on its first 10-win season since 2003, when the Hurricanes posted 11 wins, their last coming on this same stage - the Orange Bowl.

“When you win this game, it propels you into next year, so that’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to show that we can win consistently versus great competition and Wisconsin is a great team,” Rosier said. “We’ve just got to come out and perform … Wisconsin has dominated their division this whole year up until the Ohio State game and they still played Ohio State very closely. They’re a very admirable opponent. … Just winning this type of game speaks numbers. It’s going to help us in many different ways … especially sending these seniors off in the right way. They deserve it. They’ve grinded with us. They’ve stayed with us through a coaching change. So [we want to] just send those guys off the right way.”

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