Wisconsin’s puzzling Week 2 loss to Washington State has stirred conversations about head football coach Paul Chryst’s job security.
College football never has a shortage of scandals and controversy surrounding head coaches, but Chryst, the mild-mannered Madison native, has developed an apparent shroud of trust and job security with the university and fan base since taking the job in December 2014.
This past January, the UW Athletic Board approved an extension of Chryst’s contract through 2027. With a salary of over $5 million, the 56-year-old makes plenty of money — more than any other public employee in Wisconsin, in fact.
Following the Washington State loss, Chryst offered the press a handful of comments which merit a deeper look. Rather than question his worth as Wisconsin’s head coach, this article will dissect his postgame analysis and explore how responsible the coaching staff’s in-game decisions were for Saturday’s loss. Further, it will detail what the Badgers must do to bounce back from the defeat and salvage their 2022 season.
It should be noted that criticisms of Wisconsin’s coaching performance extend to Offensive Coordinator Bobby Engram, Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard and the rest of the coaching staff.
“The objective is to score more points [than the other team], and we didn’t do that.”
Wisconsin scored 14 points — not enough, compared to Washington State’s 17.
Two second-quarter touchdowns from Graham Mertz to Clay Cundiff accounted for all of the Badgers’ scoring. Wasted opportunities for more included a pair of unsuccessful field goal attempts, a fourth-and-short failure near midfield and Cundiff’s fourth-quarter, game-sealing fumble in the red zone.
Vito Calvaruso’s first missed field goal, a lengthy 51-yard try, came on fourth-and-five. Punting from the opponent’s 33-yard line was out of the question, but what about going for it? It’s hard to blame the coaching staff for trusting Calvaruso, who was successful from 57 yards in pregame warmups.
As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus, Wisconsin’s placekicker “jumped the snap” on that attempt. A field goal may have been the best chance at scoring on that possession but, to little fault of Chryst and his staff, Calvaruso failed to come through.
“You know, he’s been good in practice, but certainly would like to be better,” Chryst said postgame of Calvaruso. “We need to be. That can be the difference.”
These comments suggest Calvaruso’s job is secure at this point in the season. Should that change, redshirt freshman Nate Van Zelst would likely be the next man up.
“I’m kicking myself for going for it on fourth-and-three. I’d like to have that one back. Kind of set them up with a shorter field.”
Following Calvaruso’s miss, Wisconsin’s next possession spilled into the second quarter. Facing fourth-and-three at Washington State’s 47, the Badgers elected this time to keep their offense on the field. Mertz targeted a well-covered Isaac Guerendo in the flat. Even if he’d made the catch, the running back would’ve fallen short of the line to gain.
Another tough decision for Chryst had yet again failed to pay off, and four plays later, the Cougars had taken a seven-point lead. Should Wisconsin have punted, pinned Washington State deep in its own territory and trusted its defense?
“I do have confidence in our defense,” Chryst said. “Offensively, you know, you’ve just got to deliver.”
Going for it was commendable, especially considering the confidence Mertz was playing with. It’s on Chryst and Engram to call better plays in such situations, and on Mertz to throw contested passes only to receivers beyond the sticks.
Another school of thought says Wisconsin’s best offensive player, running back Braelon Allen, should get the ball on such a critical down. Despite his occasional ineffectiveness last Saturday, Allen still breaks tackles as well as anybody and is a fairly safe bet to pick up three yards, even against a stacked defensive front.
“I mean, we had it, we gave the play early. And, you know — it shouldn’t happen, right? I mean, it shouldn’t happen.”
By “it,” Chryst was referring to Wisconsin’s delay of game penalty prior to Cundiff’s second touchdown. Washington State, defending in the red zone with the first-half clock about to expire, had just called a timeout, yet the Badger offense failed to get the ensuing snap off in time.
The blunder proved inconsequential, as Mertz found Cundiff for a 10-yard score before halftime. That said, it was one of many head-scratching moments for the Badgers last week.
Wisconsin — lacking the recruiting might of, say, Ohio State — depends upon disciplined, intelligent football in order to be a competitive program in the Big Ten conference and Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football as a whole. Individual incidents like Saturday’s delay of game may not be the coaching staff’s fault, but it’s on Chryst and co. to admonish the Badgers for those mistakes and ensure a tidier brand of football this week versus New Mexico State.
“A couple times, I thought he pushed it down there when I thought there was something else, maybe a little bit higher-percentage.”
On the topic of highly touted recruits, it’s time for Chryst and Wisconsin’s offensive coaches to remove Mertz’s training wheels as the quarterback enters the thick of his third season.
In my recap of the loss, I explored this Chryst quote about Mertz’s downfield aggression last week, especially in the first half.
With the 2021 version of Mertz, Wisconsin’s offense scraped its head against a ceiling of mediocrity. While Braelon Allen’s excellence fueled dominant games and high point totals for the Badger offense, the unit was alarmingly one-dimensional.
This proved costly against Minnesota, which effectively stacked the box against Allen and forced Mertz to beat them. The Badger quarterback, having been on a leash since his interception-ridden start to 2021, managed little and the Gophers won. As a result, Wisconsin missed out on a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Chryst understandably wants Mertz to stay within his game and strike a balance between downfield aggression and short-field conservativeness. Cautious play calling proved ineffective through the game, though, and even with the obvious risks involved, Mertz should’ve had more opportunities in the second half and more control over the game’s outcome.
All of the above begs the question: Can the Badgers take the next step with Chryst at the helm, or will they remain multiple tiers below the nation’s best programs despite perennially vying for a Big Ten West title?
Wisconsin is 66-24 under Chryst and, barring 2020, it hasn’t won fewer than eight games in any of the coach’s eight seasons. The program’s consistency has been impressive, but the lack of improvement since 2015 can’t go unnoticed.
If the Washington State loss is a sign of things to come and 2022 spirals into disaster for the Badgers, Chryst’s job security will become a conversation worth having. For now, however, he deserves a bit of a leash to prove last Saturday a fluke.