Football: Two programs in flux: Northwestern gears up for clash with Wisconsin and interim head coach Leonhard Saturday


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Coach Pat Fitzgerald calls a play during Northwestern’s game against Wisconsin in 2021. Fitzgerald was “shocked” when he heard of Badgers coach Paul Chryst’s firing ahead of Saturday’s game between the two programs.

Alex Cervantes, Assistant Sports Editor

The latest victim to the 2022 college football coaching carousel? Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst. 

On Sunday, the Badgers fired Chryst, who accumulated a 67-26 record at the helm of Wisconsin football for over seven years and led the team to three Big Ten West titles. He’s spent the majority of his life as a player and coach in Madison, but at the end of the day, winning is a cure-all in football, and Chryst had not been doing a lot of it recently. 

Wisconsin opened the 2022 campaign ranked 18th nationally and was subsequently trounced by three Power Five opponents — Washington State, No. 3 Ohio State and Illinois — dropping all three games by a combined score of 103-45. The tough start this season, coupled with previous shortcomings in 2020 and 2021, led to Chryst’s sacking.

The man tasked with righting the Badgers’ ship in the interim, former defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, said at a Tuesday press conference that the emotions of the team are naturally running high. 

“My message to the team starting yesterday was to let it settle in, get out of the building a little bit, let it hurt,” Leonhard said. “A big lesson we got to learn is how to compartmentalize the emotion of it. Not trying to brush it aside, not trying to make it go away but we have to be able to focus.”

In assessing the team’s current status, Leonhard said the defense will likely operate normally, but he’s looking to get the offense back to the basics: physical play, running the ball and play action.

Despite meeting for the first time as head coaches Saturday, Leonhard and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald share a lot of similarities. Both were All-American defensive cogs as players and returned to their alma maters as defensive backs coaches, before being propelled to the head coaching position. And both are desperately searching for a glimpse of hope during seasons of turmoil.

Though Fitzgerald said he was “shocked” to hear the news of Chryst’s firing, he spoke highly of Leonhard’s coaching ability.

“It’s always challenging to take over a role in some adverse times and coach Leonhard will do a phenomenal job,” Fitzgerald said. “He was a phenomenal player at Wisconsin … and he’s been outstanding since he’s taken over their defense and (I have) just the utmost respect for Coach Leonhard.” 

The Wildcats, amid a four-game skid, have not won a game in the United States this season and are coming off a rainy and turnover-filled 17-7 loss to Penn State. The one highlight from the ugly affair is that NU’s defense forced a season-high five turnovers and held a dynamic Nittany Lion rushing attack to 3.8 yards per carry. The Cats’ rush defense will need another strong performance to stymie Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen. 

Allen, who expressed his dismay towards Chryst’s firing on Twitter, has rushed for 499 yards and six touchdowns this season. He’ll be looking to replicate his dazzling display against NU from 2021, in which he torched the Cats for 173 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Junior defensive back Garnett Hollis Jr., who forced a fumble against the Nittany Lions, said the Cats are concentrating on fixes internally, not any external matters. 

“We haven’t really focused on them, we’re really focusing on us,” Hollis said. “They do have a new coaching change … that doesn’t really affect us. We gotta focus on how we can get better throughout the week and how our preparation will help us win this game.”

In front of a homecoming crowd at Ryan Field, emotions will be running rampant for both NU and Wisconsin. The outcome of Saturday’s contest will be determined by which coach, amid all the early season struggles, can piece together a relatively complete game of football. Easy in theory, difficult in practice — at least for both of these teams so far.

Regardless, Fitzgerald and the Cats won’t be worried about the difficult situation unfolding for the Badgers.

“I work here, and I’ve got 99 problems,” Fitzgerald said. “Theirs are not one.”

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex

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