The teams: The Wisconsin Badgers (2-3, 0-2) vs the Northwestern Wildcats (1-4, 1-1)
The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
The TV coverage: Big Ten Network with Mark Followill and Brock Vereen on the call, and Rick Pizzo on the sideline
The last time: Braelon Allen ran for 173 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin’s 35-7 win last November in Madison.
The series: Wisconsin 61-37-5
The line: Wisconsin -10.5
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) The response
In what will serve as the conclusion to one of the more shocking weeks in Wisconsin football history, the Badgers will face Northwestern with interim coach Jim Leonhard on the sideline in place of Paul Chryst. Athletic director Chris McIntosh stunned the college football world last Sunday in firing a coach that had overseen a slip in play of late but that had also won 72-percent of his games. It left players, especially leaders like running back Braelon Allen and linebacker Nick Herbig, sad and upset. It’s been Leonhard’s job to get those emotions under control and return the focus to the field. How good of job did he do? We’ll see early against the Wildcats.
2) Seven game tryout
Nearly everyone around the Wisconsin program thought Leonhard would be the next head coach whenever Chryst’s time in Madison was done. Obviously, no one would have thought that time would come in the middle of a season, much less this season. But now the former All-American safety is in charge of a program going the wrong way. How can he get things turned around and give himself the best chance of having the interim tag removed? Get Wisconsin back to playing Wisconsin football. Cut out the self-inflicted mistakes, including unforced turnovers, penalties, and communication errors. Essentially, plan clean football, something that has been hard to come by for the Badgers this season.
3) What do you got, Graham Mertz?
Fair or not, Chryst’s long-term job security was largely tied to Graham Mertz. When he made the decision to keep Mertz as his starting quarterback in 2020 instead of going back to a finally healthy Jack Coan, it joined the two at the hip. In all honesty, it was the only decision he could make considering Mertz’s pedigree and four years of eligibility. But the quarterback wasn’t able to payoff Chryst’s belief in him enough to save his job.
While the junior has made clear strides this year, he has shown he still has a ways to go after the last two weeks. Like Leonhard, Mertz could very well be auditioning the next seven weeks to determine whether he should be the starter next year or if Wisconsin needs to look at freshman Myles Burkett or the transfer portal for its new signal caller.
4) Got to be better
Wisconsin’s run game hit a new low point against Illinois, running for just two yards. It was the fewest the Badgers had run for since 2015. That was Chryst’s first year when they had a young, inexperienced line and no true feature back. Neither of those can describe this year’s line and running back.
If Wisconsin has any hope of saving its season, the offensive line and running backs must be able to move the ball at a better clip. Helping matters, this week at least, is Northwestern has struggled to stop the run. The Wildcats rank 99th in the country allowing 172.6 yards per game. The Badgers ran for 268 yards in last season’s game and will be looking for a repeat performance.
5) Get it fixed
While Wisconsin’s offense has been ugly for large stretches, the defense hasn’t been much better, especially the last two weeks. The unit overseen by Leonhard has allowed 86 points and been gashed in the run game. The front seven has struggled to get pressure much of the year, while the secondary has been hit hard by injury and penalties.
Enter Northwestern’s offense, which hasn’t fared well since putting up 31 points against Nebraska in the opener. Since then, the Wildcats are putting up just 17 points per game and that includes losses to FCS Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio). Despite having a talented back in Evan Hull (415 yards), they’ve been really poor running the ball (106th in the country) and that has forced quarterback Ryan Hilinski to throw it 44 times per game, which is the fifth-most in the nation. If Wisconsin can make Northwestern one-dimensional and get its pass rush ratcheted up, it would go a long way to getting that side of the ball back to playing at a high level.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
Wisconsin has just one win in Evanston since 2000. In Northwestern’s six home wins in that stretch, it has beaten the Badgers by an average of 8.3 points. Wisconsin, which is favored by 10.5, has not been an underdog on the road against the Wildcats since 1990.
The Badgers are 0-2 in Big Ten play for a second straight season. They haven’t gone 0-3 to start conference play since 2008. That year they went 0-4 with losses to Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Iowa. They ended up 3-5 in Big Ten action, which is also the last time they finished a season below .500 in the conference.
Northwestern has forced 10 turnovers this season, including five against Penn State last week. That ranks 20th in the country. However, the Wildcats have a negative turnover margin thanks to turning it over 13 times this season. Only one team in the nation has turned it over more.
Wisconsin is expecting to get cornerback Alexander Smith back in the lineup against the Wildcats. The senior missed all of fall camp and the first five games with a hamstring injury. Leonhard had called him his top cover man coming out of spring practice and he figures to be a significant addition to the secondary.