It's A Long Road Ahead For Wisconsin Football

It's A Long Road Ahead For Wisconsin Football

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It's A Long Road Ahead For Wisconsin Football

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

When Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh fired head coach Paul Chryst five games into this 2022 season, the reverberations were felt far and wide inside the Big Ten. Chryst, who grew up in Madison, played quarterback and tight end at Wisconsin, and was a Badger assistant coach from 2002-2011. He left to be the head coach at Pittsburgh in 2012, only to return to UW to be their head coach, replacing Gary Andersen in 2014.

His record at Wisconsin is impressive. From 2015 until his firing this season, Chryst coached the Badgers to 68 wins against 26 losses. In conference play his record is a solid 43-18 with three Big Ten West Division titles in 2016, 2017, and 2019. He was Big Ten Coach Of The Year in 2016 and again in 2017. 

His head coaching career at UW started fast. In Christ’s first season, the Badgers would finish 10-3. In 2016 Wisconsin would upset number five LSU at Lambeau Field. The win would launch them to a win in the Cotton Bowl and a final ranking of ninth in both the AP and Coaches Poll. 2017 would be a watershed season in Madison. Despite not being part of the College Football Playoff, they would beat Miami in the Orange Bowl and finish sixth in the Coaches Poll and seventh in the AP. The 2019 season was the last that would find Chryst and the Badgers on the big stage, as they would lose to the Oregon Ducks 28-27 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

The 2020 COVID season would begin the quick decline of the Badgers’ offense. They would finish 12th in production after two seasons where they would rank fourth in total offense for the 2017-2018 season and first in the Big Ten in total offense in 2019. Rather quickly, other issues began to arise in the football program that would ultimately seal Chrysts’ fate.

In 2020, starting quarterback Jack Coan would suffer a broken foot before the season began. Enter Graham Mertz, Wisconsin’s highest-rated quarterback prospect in school history. He would complete 20 of his 21 passes with five touchdowns in his first start against Illinois, but his season would digress as he finished the season with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He would continue to struggle on the field in 2021 where he would complete only 59.5% of his passes and finish the season with 11 interceptions and 10 touchdowns. A 17-14 loss against Washington State in Madison would serve notice that Wisconsin football was in trouble. Mertz would never live up to his expected potential and would eventually serve as an anchor around the neck of Paul Chryst. What Chryst didn’t realize is that the clock was ticking on his time in Madison, and five games into this season, McIntosh would pull the plug.

Where Wisconsin goes from here is a mystery. Jim Leonhard assumes the interim duties for the balance of the 2022 season. Leonhard, another former Wisconsin Badger, begins his career calling the shots when they travel to Northwestern this week. His career on the sidelines may be short. Hired as a defensive coach in 2016, it’s hard to see UW rolling the dice on an unproven entity. With a stunned locker room, it’s reasonable to ask if Leonhard can rally this team beyond their absolute devotion to Paul Chryst. It will be an uphill climb the rest of this season and a winning record may not be in the cards. 

Camp Randall was quiet on Saturday as Illinois and head coach Bret Bielma rolled Wisconsin with a punishing ground game winning 34-10. Something Chryst and the Badgers were so good at. The irony that Bielma was the last hand he would shake as a head coach isn’t lost. Paul Chryst is a good man. That won’t be much comfort when he watches his Badgers this Saturday.

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