Interim head coach Jim Leonhard led his Badgers to a dominating 42-7 rout over Big Ten foe Northwestern on Saturday afternoon in Evanston, Illinois.
A former walk-on at Wisconsin, the new head coach took over for Paul Chryst last week, and in his first game with the head coach hat on, Leonhard was cool, calm and collected on the sideline.
“When I woke up this morning, it was a great feeling,” Leonhard said at the postgame press conference. “Game day is a different feel.”
Leonhard talked about the difficulties and the mental battles facing him and his team the week prior to gameday but noted that the team regained focus Wednesday.
Clearly, the team was focused from the start Saturday afternoon, as they dominated the Wildcats from the opening drive, winning a crucial road game in the Big Ten West.
For the first time this season, offensive coordinator Bobby Engram moved from his traditional spot in the press box down onto the field where he called plays for the Badger offense. Leonhard spoke multiple times both before and after the game about the importance of a coach-by-committee approach.
Leonhard praised Engram and the rest of the coaching staff for their ability to adapt to the unique challenges this particular week presented. This approach clearly worked, with Engram’s move being perhaps the most notable success of the week for Leonhard, as the added ease of communication allowed quarterback Graham Mertz to have the best game of his Wisconsin career.
There seemed to be an added emphasis on throwing the football this week, and Leonhard highlighted that in his press conference.
“[We] have to play off our passing game,” Leonhard said. “Teams are going to stop the run.”
Leonhard noted the unusual aggressiveness of the Northwestern safeties attacking the line of scrimmage with the intention of stopping Wisconsin’s running game.
Saturday was a complete success for Leonhard and Wisconsin. Northwestern has been a team that Wisconsin has struggled with, going 6-4 in their last 10 matchups against a typically inferior Northwestern program.
A road game, with a new head coach and a struggling team, was the perfect recipe for another disappointing Wisconsin loss. But Leonhard’s added energy, some offensive success and a physical defensive approach propelled Wisconsin to a much-needed win.
“I feel very confident because of the confidence they [the players] are giving me,” Leonhard said.