Michigan State (2-4) will look to end its four-game losing streak in a homecoming weekend matchup with Wisconsin (3-3) on Saturday. The game will kick off at 4 p.m. Eastern Time and broadcast on FOX.
To get a better look at the Badgers ahead of the matchup, we spoke with Tyler Hunt (no, not Michigan State’s tight end), site manager at Bucky’s 5th Quarter — SB Nation’s home for all things Wisconsin athletics.
Was Wisconsin’s decision to fire Paul Chryst in the midst of the 2022 season the right call? Why have the Badgers struggled so far this year? Is quarterback Graham Mertz better than given credit for? Tyler answers these questions and more.
1. In your opinion, was the decision to fire Paul Chryst during the season the right choice? Why or why not? Do you expect Jim Leonhard to get the full-time head coaching job, or somebody else?
Tyler: I do think the decision to fire Paul Chryst was the right one for the Badgers. I have been on record saying this team was backsliding in terms of production, wins and losses, and especially in recruiting. Michigan State plucked a lot of great talent from Wisconsin’s recruiting department and the Badgers left those positions largely unfilled for nearly eight months. I see that as a disaster and, frankly, unforgivable in today’s college football world.
As for Leonhard, I do think he will end up as the next permanent head coach at Wisconsin. He has longed been talked about as the next in line and I would be shocked if he does not get it going forward. I think he will be great at it and deserves the opportunity after all he has done at Wisconsin as a player and as a defensive coordinator.
2. Much like Michigan State, Wisconsin has struggled to begin the 2022 season. What issues have plagued the team? What do the Badgers do well? Does Wisconsin still have a chance to win the Big Ten West?
Tyler: It’s been a weird season for the Badgers. The biggest issue has been the offense as that unit has struggled in all of Wisconsin’s losses. Against Illinois, the Badgers put up just two (2) rushing yards. That is unacceptable for Wisconsin. Now, Illinois might be better than we thought, but still...Wisconsin. Two yards? Give me a break. Anyway, that unit has not been good and the play-calling had been a little suspect. How much of that was Paul Chryst? I’m not sure. Last week things looked a lot better and the offensive attack was much more balance, so we’ll see where the rest of the season takes this unit.
It’s not all on the offense, though, as the defense has not been your usual Wisconsin defense. The Badgers are middling in most statistical categories, which is not something we are used to seeing. The Badgers usually have a top-25, top-15, top-five defense, and this year that has not been the case. It isn’t one specific area either, it’s kind of been “meh” front to back.
As for the Big Ten West, I do think the Badgers still have a shot because everyone in this division does right now. Every team has at least one conference loss. Wisconsin would need to likely win out to control the tiebreaker over most of the teams, and the Badgers would need Illinois to lose a couple more conference games. Not impossible, but I am not holding my breath until I see some consistency from this team week after week.
3. Quarterback Graham Mertz had a bit of a rough start to the season but threw for 299 yards and five touchdowns against Northwestern. How do you evaluate Mertz’s play so far this season? Do you believe he can have success against Michigan State’s putrid 122nd-ranked passing defense?
Tyler: I think the numbers for Graham Mertz are a little bit deceiving. Honestly, I think he has gotten A LOT better from last year and he’s been the Badgers’ best player at times this season. I think Mertz has been pretty good all in all. Yes, the Badgers have lost three games but all three defenses they lost to rank in the top-30 of a lot of defensive metrics. It might not have been as bad as it seemed at the time.
I think the biggest thing for Mertz is confidence. The tools are all there in terms of arm strength, touch, etc. He just has to stay confident and I think him throwing for 300 yards and five scores will make him extra confident going into this week’s game. I think he’ll be able to have success against this defense, especially if the box is loaded up to stop Braelon Allen. If Wisconsin has both going it’s hard to defend.
4. Outside of Mertz and running back Braelon Allen, who are the players to watch on Wisconsin’s offense and why?
Tyler: Last week, Wisconsin’s wideouts really shined. They are young, but I think they are super talented. Mertz’s favorite connection is with wide receiver Chimere Dike. He’s been great and truly looks like a number-one receiver for Wisconsin. Beyond him, Skyler Bell has had a really good year along with Markus Allen, a player from Michigan originally. If Mertz has a big day, those guys will be on the receiving end of it.
5. What are Wisconsin’s strengths on defense? Who are the players to watch on that side of the ball?
Tyler: Wisconsin’s strength is its ability to confuse you and mix looks and bring pressure. One of the players to watch on that side of the ball is defensive tackle Keeanu Benton. Benton is an NFL Draft prospect and does a great job of moving the line of scrimmage backward and eating up blocks. When he does that, it allows the linebackers to get into gaps and bring pressure. Most of that pressure has come from outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who has racked up five sacks on the season.
6. What is your final score prediction?
I think the Badgers continue to keep things rolling here and I think Mertz is able to do some good things in the passing game. I’ll say 31-20 Wisconsin in this contest.