Upon Further Review: Badgers look like different team in first game under Leonhard Wisconsin News
Meet the new coach, not the same as the old coach.
A lot of things looked different in Wisconsin’s 42-7 win at Northwestern, not just the head coach patrolling the sideline.
In Jim Leonhard’s first game as interim head coach, taking over for the fired Paul Chryst, the Badgers had perhaps their most well-rounded performance of the season. The offense in particular, not Leonhard’s domain.
Leonhard said he let the offensive staff handle that side of the ball and coordinator Bobby Engram seemed like a man who was given new-found freedom.
The Badgers opened the game with back-to-back first-down passes, used plenty of play-action, lined up in new formations like the pistol with a fullback – and passed out of it – and even took a shot play after the defense came up with a turnover.
Wisconsin used the pass to get ahead early – gasp! – and finished with six touchdowns through the air, the most in any game in Badgers history. Wisconsni had eight completions of 15+ yards, five of those going for scores.
After allowing 86 points in the last two weeks, Leonard’s unit reverted to form as well, coming up with three takeaways and nearly pitching a shutout before giving up a fourth-quarter touchdown (although a missed 21-yard field-goal attempt also assisted in the near blanking).
Sure, the opponent might have had something to do with the Badgers’ turnaround. After all, Northwestern is now 1-5 having lost five straight.
But Wisconsin (3-3) could have easily collapsed around the emotion of the week behind them. Don’t forget, these are young men who came to UW because of Chryst. Instead, the players – and coaches – rallied and dominated.
Who knows how long this will last – the schedule does get tougher in the second half, even with no (current) ranked teams on the calendar – but it was a step in the right direction. It could easily have gone the other way.
Now it’s Leonhard’s job to keep them on that path.
Here’s a recap of Saturday’s game:
Wisconsin hasn’t seen a game from a wide receiver like Chimere Dike put up in a long time. Dike finished with 10 catches on 11 targets – and the only reason he didn’t grab the one incompletion is because it was thrown nowhere near him – for 185 yards with three touchdowns. He’s the first Badger to have 10+ catches, 100+ yards and 3+ TDs since Lee Evans went for 10-258-5 against Michigan State in 2003. Dike had the most receiving yards in a game for a Wisconsin player since 2013, when Jared Abbrederis had 207 at Ohio State and it was just the 11th time since 2000 a Badgers wideout topped 170 yards. Four of Dike’s receptions went for 20 or more yards, including a 52-yard catch and run on a slant in which he simply outran the opposition. Not garnering as much attention but perhaps his most impressive grab was on a crossing pattern over the middle in the first quarter in which he reached out and caught it with his hands while a defender was draped all over him. He entered the contest with 15 catches for 257 yards and a touchdown. In fact, in his three seasons he’d never had more than one TD in any year. In a game Engram seemed intent to get the ball into the hands of Wisconsin’s playmakers (Braelon Allen had 23 carries after garnering just eight a week ago), Dike showed why with a game for the ages.
Someone had to throw Dike those passes and while Graham Mertz had a few poor throws he’d like to have back, for the most part he was on target and made some headsy plays. Mertz finished 20-for-29 passing for 299 yards with five touchdowns, the later tying a school single-game record. He had the most passing yards for a Badgers quarterback on the road since Joel Stave had 322 at Nebraska on Oct. 10, 2015 and was the first to have three passing TDs in the first half of a road game since Russell Wilson at Minnesota in 2011. Mertz had a nice-play action pass to a wide-open Skyler Bell to open the scoring and cap off a 98-yard drive and a nice floater on the run to Dike for one of his three scores. What is a perfect game? Of course not. But Mertz looked as comfortable – and confident – as he has all season.
Quite frankly, the wildcat with Braelon Allen seems like it’s been overplayed already, even if only used in the last couple of games. But it did produce a memorable play. In the second quarter on third-and-2, Allen took the wildcat snap and looked like he wanted to throw – except Northwestern blew up the play, forcing Allen to scramble to his right. Throwing the ball was still on his mind, though, and he passed to an open Chez Mellusi. With wide receiver Skyler Bell getting in the way of a defender to clear a path, Mellusi took off for the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown. It was the first passing touchdown for a Badgers non-quarterback since James White in the 2012 Big Ten title game and first in a regular-season contest since Montee Ball vs. Indiana on Oct. 15, 2011. It also put Allen in the record book – in passing. As noted, the six passing TDs—five for Mertz and one for Allen—were a school record.
Ryan Field had been a house of horrors for Wisconsin this century. The Badgers had lost six of seven games in Evanston dating back to 2003 (before you say there’s a few other years in the 21st century, the previous game there before 2003 was in 1999), with the only victory coming in 2016. Wisconsin’s 42 points were the most against the Wildcats since 2010 and highest output in Evanston since 2005 (which was a loss. The Badgers hadn’t accumulated that many points in Evanston since 1994 and the 35-point margin of victory was Wisconsin’s largest of Northwestern on the road since a 49-0 whitewash in 1983.
“That’s the very first thing I told them. So proud of what we handled this week, dealing with the emotions, being able to focus and get a win. It’s all about one at a time. Just get one win at a time. Obviously that’s very cliche, but we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves.” — head coach Jim Leonard
“You can’t allow teams to continually attack. You have to do something to slow them down and keep them on their heels. The right thing today was the perimeter. Get the ball on the edge, trust Graham (Mertz) to make decisions , trust our receivers to beat coverage. They were aggressive. … We have to play off our passing game. Teams are going to stop the run. They are going to load the box and dedicate a lot of attention to our running backs and O-line. We have to be able to balance that a little bit and I thought today was a great example of it.” — Leonard
“I could tell him face-to-face. Get me the ball.” — running back Braelon Allen on what it meant to have OC Bobby Engram on the field instead of a box
“There were a couple changes. I think coach Engram did a great job of spreading the ball around.” — wide receiver Chimere Dike
“After we win, we celebrate a little bit and get hyped. But coach Leonhard has a little different swag to him. It felt good winning for a coach like him. It felt good to finally get a win. We put it all out. ” — Linebacker Jake Chaney
It’s another road game for Wisconsin, which heads to Michigan State. The Spartans are 2-4 after losing 49-20 at home to Ohio State. Michigan State is 0-4 against winning teams, including a 34-7 defeat in East Lansing, Mich., to Minnesota. It’s been quite the fall for a team which went 11-2 in 2021. This will mark the second time the Badgers will face one of their former running backs as the Spartans’ leading rusher is Jalen Berger. Wisconsin previously lost to Nakia Watson, who scored twice, and Washington State.