MADISON — Shortly after an emotional victory celebration in the visitors’ locker room at Ryan Field, several Wisconsin players were asked a pointed question:
Is this the type of performance you envisioned and expected before the season?
“We know we’re a good football team,” junior wide receiver Chimere Dike said after UW’s 42-7 win over Northwestern. “But we have to be able to play consistent and clean football.
“I think we did that today and showed a little glimpse of the team we can be.”
That insight helped UW (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) end a two-game losing streak, give interim head coach Jim Leonhard a memorable debut and help players break free from a tumultuous week that began with the dismissal of Paul. Christ.
“Just one win was really needed,” said tailback Braelon Allen. “Doing it the way we did was a plus, but we’ve been working all week.
“Whatever situation we were in, we stayed focused and realized we had a game to play.”
Pat Fitzgerald’s 17th team at Northwestern is no closer to vying for a title. The Wildcats (1-5, 1-2) are struggling on offense and defense. Since winning the Big Ten West Division in 2020, the Wildcats are 2-10 in the league and 4-14 overall.
Still, a streak early in Saturday’s game showed the Badgers could be more competitive and dangerous down the stretch than they were in losses to Washington State, Ohio State and Illinois.
The Badgers took the opening kickoff and went from their 17th to 18th Wildcats in seven games, two assists and five points.
The drive stalled as Allen gained 1 yard on first down and quarterback Graham Mertz threw back-to-back incompletes. When Nate Van Zelst missed a field goal attempt from 35 yards, the obvious question was:
Will this empty disc negatively affect a team that has struggled to deal with swings so far this season?
UW’s second offensive series provided the answer.
The Badgers took over at their 2 after a punt and went for 98 yards in nine plays to break a scoreless tie. Mertz overcame back-to-back failures by completing 4 of 4 passes for 53 yards and a touchdown to Skyler Bell. Allen gave the offense some leeway by capitalizing on an excellent block for a 14-yard gain on the first play of the drive and finished with 30 yards on five carries.
This record was the polar opposite of a similar streak against Illinois.
UW held a 7-0 lead in the first quarter but started their second possession on their 3 after a punt. Two runs netted a yard gain and Mertz threw an interception on third down. The Illini turned the turnover into a touchdown and the Badgers never fully recovered from that momentum.
Leonhard noticed the difference on Saturday.
“We talked all week,” he said. “There’s going to be adversity and you have to hang in there. We can’t let one bad thing affect the whole team consistently. And it was happening, for whatever reason.
“And to have success and miss a basket and have the guys rally, that was huge. You saw the energy constantly on the sideline and the focus. A lot of guys in it.
The lopsided victory was impressive.
Mertz was effective on first downs and kept the chains moving with several critical third pitches. Dike consistently exploited Northwestern’s secondary whether the Wildcats were in man-to-man or zone coverage. Allen made plays with his feet and arm and Chez Mellusi contributed with a 23-yard touchdown catch and 31 rushing yards.
Tomorrow:Wisconsin running back Chez Mellusi underwent surgery on a broken wrist and will be out indefinitely
The UW defense forced three turnovers and kept the Wildcats scoreless for nine straight possessions before giving up a cosmetic touchdown.
The Badgers have six regular-season games remaining and are tracking four West Division teams as they prepare to face Michigan State (2-4, 0-3) this week.
Still, the confidence of the UW players — and Leonhard — after the win over Northwestern was palpable.
So linebacker Jake Chaney, is this the type of team you expected to see this season?
“I think we’re getting closer to that,” Chaney said. “I think we still left some things on the pitch. I feel like we can be a lot better and that was a good step in the right direction.