Credit: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
For the first time since the 2014 season, someone other than Paul Chryst will lead Wisconsin on the field when it battles Northwestern in a Big Ten West matchup on Saturday at Evanston, Ill.
In a surprising move, Chryst was fired after the Badgers (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) sustained an embarrassing 34-10 loss at home to Illinois, led by former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a former Wisconsin and NFL player, has been named interim head coach.
Northwestern (1-4, 1-1) has dropped four straight after a season-opening 31-28 victory over Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland. The Wildcats are coming off a 17-7 loss at No. 10 Penn State.
Chryst, a Madison, Wis. native, was 67-26 in seven-plus seasons with three Big Ten West titles and a 6-1 mark in bowl games, including Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl victories.
“We understand that our five-game resume this year is not what we wanted,” Leonhard said at an emotional media conference when the announcement was made. “We have not been playing up to our capabilities. Even before this news, there were some hard conversations that were had today between coaches, players, among the staff, on how do we get it corrected?”
The Badgers, ranked 18th heading into the season, were upset by Washington State 17-14 in the second game. After routing outmanned New Mexico State 66-7, Wisconsin was dominant in every phase in a 52-21 loss at No. 3 Ohio State.
Against Illinois, the Badgers vaunted running game was held to 2 yards on 24 carries as the Illini overcame a 10-7 deficit. Quarterback Graham Mertz threw two interceptions, both of which set up Illinois scores.
Sophomore Braelon Allen, held to 2 yards on eight carries against Illinois, still averages 99.8 yards per game with a team-high 499. Mertz continues to be inconsistent. He has completed 72 of 114 passes for 997 yards, but has thrown five interceptions with eight touchdowns.
Wisconsin, which led the Big Ten last season in scoring defense (16.2 points per game) and total defense (239.1 yards per game), ranks ninth this season in scoring defense (22.0) and eighth in total defense (316.2).
Starting tight end Clay Cundiff suffered a season-ending leg injury against Ohio State, and No. 2 tight end Hayden Rucci left the Illinois game with a leg injury. Rucci’s status has not been announced.
Northwestern managed just 31 yards rushing on 28 attempts on a rain-soaked field vs. Penn State. The Wildcats lost two of three fumbles and quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw one interception, along with one touchdown.
Hilinski has completed 131 of 222 passes for 1,420 yards, six TDs and four picks. Evan Hull is the top rusher with 415 yards on 96 carries as the Wildcats average 119 on the ground. Hull also has 32 catches for 343 yards.
Northwestern is ninth in total offense (404.8) and 10th in total defense in (384.2) the Big Ten.
Even under normal circumstances, Evanston has been a tough place for Wisconsin. The Wildcats have won the last two at home vs. the Badgers and six of the last seven.
“It’s always hard to compete against the Badgers,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who also spoke of his longtime friendship with Chryst. “A game that I think is always hard-fought, and always tough and always physical. So, I’ll anticipate a similar one here this Saturday.”
– Field Level Media