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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Wisconsin kicks off post-Chryst era with inviting road matchup

Fresh off of an embarrassing home loss and the sudden firing of coach Paul Chryst, the Wisconsin Badgers will return to the road to face off against the Northwestern Wildcats.

The Wisconsin Badgers (2-3, 0-2) will visit the Northwestern Wildcats (1-4, 1-1) this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Evanston. 

Now coached by Jim Leonhard in the wake of Paul Chryst’s firing, Wisconsin will look to reset after consecutive weeks of dreadful play and collect its first Big Ten win of 2022. 

To hand the Wildcats a fifth consecutive loss, the Badgers will need to re-establish their ground game and inject the offense with some creativity while cutting down on unforced errors in all phases of the game. 

Northwestern offense vs. Wisconsin defense

The Wildcat offense got off to a hot start with 528 total yards and 31 points in the season-opening victory over Nebraska. It followed that with 511 yards in a loss to Duke, but the unit has gotten progressively worse since then, with turnovers being a major issue. 

Quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who started his career with two seasons at South Carolina, has had modest, yet still career-best production through five games. The junior completed 59 percent of his attempts while averaging 286 passing yards per game with six touchdowns and four interceptions. 

He’ll be coming off his worst game of the season. At Penn State in heavy rain, Hilinski completed only 15 of 37 attempts for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception. 

Hilinski also lost one of two fumbles in the 17-7 defeat, continuing Northwestern’s ball security issues in 2022. The Wildcats turned the ball over 13 times in five contests — nine fumbles and four interceptions — and could gift Wisconsin’s offense some shorter fields this Saturday. 

With how poorly the Badger offense has performed of late, winning the turnover battle may be necessary if Wisconsin is to get back in the win column. Graham Mertz and co. have shown little ability to put long drives together, so starting in enemy territory would be a huge boost. 

As a team, the Wildcats aren’t particularly effective on the ground, as they’ve averaged a poor 3.2 yards per carry. That said, leading rusher Evan Hull managed 4.3 yards per attempt en route to 415 rushing yards. 

The fourth-year back is a dual-threat for Northwestern’s offense too, having caught 32 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown this season. It’s not often a running back leads his team in receptions, so Wisconsin’s linebackers and safeties will have an uncommon assignment in covering Hull out of the backfield. 

Wide receiver Malik Washington leads the Wildcats with 347 receiving yards. The 5’9” senior has averaged 11.2 yards on his 31 catches and, along with teammate Donny Navarro (20 catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns), will look to challenge the Badger cornerbacks. 

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Northwestern knows the Badgers were flagged for defensive pass interference four times last week, so Hilinski shouldn’t hesitate to test Jay Shaw (two penalties) and Ricardo Hallman (one penalty) on the outside. 

Wisconsin may benefit from a new face in the secondary. Cornerback Alexander Smith, absent from the first five games due to a leg injury, is expected to make his 2022 debut. Though not a starter in his first four seasons, the senior has appeared in 36 career games and will bring some valued experience to the group, whether it’s this week or later in the year. 

Wisconsin offense vs. Northwestern defense

There’s no debating how ineffective the Badger offense has been in its last two games. Against Ohio State, Braelon Allen was the only productive running back, and the passing game was hopeless. He disappeared with two yards on eight carries versus Illinois, and nobody else stepped up. 

Turnovers, predictable play-calling and Mertz’s inaccuracy have allowed opposing defenses to successfully overcommit to stopping the run. Luckily for Wisconsin, the Wildcats have struggled to control the ground game. 

Northwestern allowed opponents to run for over 200 yards in consecutive games and three of five games overall. Having yielded 4.3 yards per carry and 173 per game, they figure to struggle against a presumably well-rested Allen. 

It’s unclear if Allen was fatigued from his heavy workload in Columbus or if he is playing through injury, but as his statistics glaringly indicated, he lacked his usual explosiveness. A return to form would drastically improve Wisconsin’s offense, as he succeeded throughout 2021 despite facing stacked boxes and benefiting little from the passing game.

Junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher is a player to watch for Northwestern. He leads the team with 50 tackles, having tallied double-digit totals in all but one game this season while adding an interception last week. At 6’2” and 240 pounds, Gallagher has the look of an old-school linebacker, and his performance backs that up. 

Linebacker Xander Mueller also posted impressive numbers, accumulating 39 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a sack. His performance, combined with Gallagher, will be a major factor in limiting the Badger running game. 

Wisconsin could be without running back Isaac Guerendo, who injured himself on a second-half kick return against Illinois. His absence would sap both the offense and return game of much-needed speed. 

Chimere Dike returned a couple kicks last week and figures to do the same if Guerendo is unavailable. As with defensive takeaways, long returns are a recipe for short fields and more points, so it’ll be important to monitor Guerendo’s status as Saturday approaches. 

The Wildcat defense has allowed a pedestrian 212 passing yards per game, a number inflated by Nebraska’s 355 air yards to open the season. They surrendered 202 total passing yards in the last two weeks, so Graham Mertz will once again be facing a competitive unit. 

Mertz rediscovering the accuracy he displayed through Week 3 would be instrumental in Wisconsin turning its season around. His last two games have been riddled with off-target passes and poor reads, giving the Badger receivers few opportunities to make plays. 

The absence of tight end Clay Cundiff (leg) is a major blow to Mertz’s prospects going forward. A reliable middle-of-the-field target relieves some of the pressure to throw toward the sidelines, and Cundiff will be unavailable in that role for the remainder of 2022. Perhaps Jack Eschenbach (seven catches, 65 yards) will fill in adequately, but losing Cundiff hurts nonetheless. 

Through five games, it’s safe to declare Dike (15 catches, 257 yards) and Skyler Bell (13 catches, 220) the top two receivers on Wisconsin’s roster, as they’re first and second in both receptions and yards. 

Beginning the Leonhard Era

Firing Paul Chryst is unlikely to affect Wisconsin’s defense, but how will it change the offense, if at all?

It’s unclear how involved Offensive Coordinator Bobby Engram has been with play-calling this season. His offseason hiring was expected to add a spark of creativity to a predictable, run-heavy offense, yet things haven’t changed much from a year ago. 

Perhaps Chryst’s departure will offer Engram more freedom to shuffle the game plan and open up the offense. While passing the ball more often is a dangerous idea considering Mertz’s performance of late, calling more first-down pass plays would ease Northwestern away from the line of scrimmage. Play-action has proven effective against such stacked boxes, and Leonhard has already stressed the need for more play-fakes

At 2-3, the Badgers need change, and it’ll be fascinating to see how Leonhard catalyzes it beginning this Saturday at Northwestern.

Keep an eye out for additional Week 6 content, as well as continued analysis of the Chryst firing, on The Daily Cardinal website and via Twitter @cardinal_sports.

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