Northwestern versus Wisconsin is an almost guaranteed grudge match year after year. This year’s contest looks a little bit different, though, as the Badgers venture to Evanston 0-2 in conference play after a blowout loss to Illinois, not to mention their blockbuster coaching change. Thankfully, our friends over at Bucky’s 5th Quarter were nice enough to have a look at our questions, and brave soul site manager Tyler Hunt sent over some answers. Here’s what he has to say about Wisconsin heading into this weekend’s game:
Inside NU: Of course, we have to open this one by addressing the elephant in the room – what’s the mood over yonder about Paul Chryst’s firing? Was it time? And what do you think it means for the program for the rest of the year?
Tyler Hunt: I think it depends on who you ask. The players are, rightfully, pretty upset about the decision. Chryst was and is loved by the players and that is very easy to see. He’s a great person and did a lot for Wisconsin. That said, I think most of the fans think it was time for a change at Wisconsin. Things feel like they have plateaued. I, personally, think it was time for a change at Wisconsin as I believe they have been backsliding since the 2020 COVID season.
The rest of the year will be very interesting as this is not something you have seen at Wisconsin in quite some time. I think the last time Wisconsin fired a football or basketball coach was Stan Van Gundy in like 1995? It’s definitely uncharted territory for Wisconsin but I think this gives interim head coach and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard a chance to prove he’s 100% the guy. If for some reason he isn’t, it gives the athletic department the opportunity to get out early in the coaching search, but I would be shocked if Leonhard isn’t named the next head coach.
INU: Following that up, what are confidence levels in Jim Leonhard to take the Badgers out of their current rut? What do you think he brings to the table that Chryst didn’t?
TH: I think Leonhard will be the next head coach, but this year will still be a tall task for him. Leonhard now has to wear a lot more hats than just managing the defense. He now has to settle a locker room, an uneasy coaching staff, and a recruiting class that was already struggling. Wisconsin isn’t really setting him up for success in this spot. Additionally, the defense hasn’t been its normal self but the offense is still the problem. Leonhard is a defensive mind, so he’s just going to have to weather that storm as best he can. You can’t let a whole staff go in October.
All that said, I think Leonhard brings a younger mindset and thus far has been pretty open about what is happening at Wisconsin. Chryst was never one to give much to the media and Leonhard has been the opposite thus far. I think long-term he’ll be great for the Badgers but right now I don't expect some magic turnaround.
INU: Similar to the ‘Cats, UW’s offense has struggled recently. What do you think are the biggest problems on that side of the ball, and what do Graham Mertz and company have to do this weekend to pull out a win in Evanston?
TH: There are a lot of issues here in Wisconsin right now. This offseason Wisconsin went out and made a lot of changes to fix it and thus far it has not proven to work. Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram was brought in from the Baltimore Ravens to “modernize” the offense and all we’ve seen is Wisconsin discover the Wildcat package in 2022. Another major problem has been the offensive line. They have been dominated by opposing fronts this season. Just last week Wisconsin ran for two total rushing yards. THIS IS WISCONSIN WE ARE TALKING ABOUT. TWO RUSHING YARDS. Additionally, they’ve killed drives with penalties. If they want to pull out a win both of those areas need to improve greatly. If Wisconsin is only getting two yards on the ground they are done for.
INU: On paper, Wisconsin’s defense doesn’t look quite as good as it was last year. But, much of that has to do with the lack of support from the offense — how good really is the 2022 Badger defense and what have its strengths and weaknesses been so far?
TH: I don’t think the defense is as bad as it has looked this season, but it has not been pretty. The offense has put them in some pretty big holes at times but this unit still has not been what you are used to. Part of that is youth, as Wisconsin lost a lot from last year’s unit. Another part of that is speed. Wisconsin always looks slow compared to Ohio State but even Illinois was beating them handily in that area. It’s hard to pinpoint a true strength or weakness thus far as all phases have been poor by Wisconsin standards. In terms of defensive success rate, the Badgers rank 72nd against the run and 70th against the pass. No area has looked like a full-on disaster but no area has looked great either. Essentially, they are the definition of an average defense in college football which is not something we are used to at Wisconsin.
INU: The Northwestern-Wisconsin battle is a surprisingly even 4-4 over the last eight seasons, and the Badgers haven’t won at Ryan Field since 2016. What’s your prediction for this Saturday’s grudge match, and why?
TH: Oh man, hard to say really. I think there are so many variables at play here. On one hand, Wisconsin should come out highly motivated to back their fired coach but the numbers say that doesn’t mean all that much. Since 2018, teams are 7-24 straight up the week after they fire a coach.
On another hand, Northwestern has played all of their games within ten points so I don’t think this one is getting away from either side and historically these two teams have been as tight as ever. The homer in me does think Wisconsin will find a way to clean things up and win this game, but no result would shock me. I’ll take the Badgers 27-20.