Nov 20, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) hands the football off to running back Braelon Allen (0) during the first quarter against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin Badgers vs. Northwestern Wildcats: What to watch for

The Wisconsin Badgers (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) will hit the road for the second time this season to take on the Northwestern Wildcats (1-4, 1-1 Big Ten) on Saturday afternoon.

The Badgers are heading into Saturday’s matchup coming off of a tough loss to Illinois. Additionally, they will play their first game under the direction of interim head coach Jim Leonhard.

Here are some key items to watch for in week six:

How will the Wisconsin Badgers look under new leadership?

MADISON, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 02: Wisconsin defensive coach Jim Leonhard looks on in the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium on October 02, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)

The Badgers moved on from Paul Chryst on Sunday night after a brutal loss to the Illinois Fighting Illini. UW’s Athletic Director, Chris McIntosh, has appointed defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard as the interim head coach.

The staff shakeup caused plenty of discussion between the Wisconsin faithful and the players. Key contributors such as Braelon Allen and Nick Herbig voiced their support for the former head coach. Now under new leadership, an essential item to watch will be how Wisconsin responds.

Jim Leonhard has been an excellent coach at UW. After stepping in as the defensive backs coach in 2016, he quickly stepped into the defensive coordinator role just one year later. Under Leonhard’s direction, the Wisconsin defense has had some of its best years. The Badgers have reached a top 10 rating in total defense in four of his five years as defensive coordinator. He’s also shown excellent leadership and coaching ability on defense, and he is now given the opportunity to lead the team.

With Leonhard stepping in, be on the lookout to see how the Badgers perform on Saturday. Will the change of leadership cause them to take a step forward or continue on their backslide?

Will the secondary bounce back after a poor performance in week five?

Wisconsin’s defense has performed below the preseason expectations. One of the most concerning groups on that end has been the secondary.

Against the Fighting Illini, the Badger’s secondary allowed 167 yards through the air and made a few costly penalties that allowed Illinois to run up the score. In week six, UW will need the secondary to perform at a much higher level.

Northwestern quarterback Ryan Hilinski is a gunslinger. The junior quarterback has averaged a whopping 44 pass attempts per game. Hilinski has thrown for 1,429 yards this season, giving him the 19th most passing yards in the nation.

Northwestern struggles to run the ball effectively, averaging just 119 yards per game on the ground. If the Badgers shut down the run game, we may see a large number of pass attempts from Hilinski.

The Badger’s secondary will need to force mistakes through the air. Hilinski has a poor touchdown to interception ratio, posting six touchdowns and four interceptions through five games. UW must take advantage of this opportunity and make this a get-right game for the secondary.

Luckily, Wisconsin will get some insurance in the secondary this weekend. According to Jim Leonhard, cornerback Alexander Smith is set to make his season debut this weekend. The senior cornerback has been out with a hamstring injury and will take his first snaps in regular season action.

Keep an eye on the Badger’s secondary this weekend as they face off against a gunslinger quarterback.

Will the Wisconsin Badgers snap their string of losses at Ryan Field?

It’s no secret that Wisconsin has struggled on the road in Evanston. The Badgers are heading to Ryan Field this weekend, where they have lost three of their last four matchups.

Northwestern has had a less than spectacular season. With a 1-4 record and an average of just 20 points per game, the Wildcats have the worst overall record in the Big Ten West. Although Northwestern has had a poor year, this game is no gimme for Wisconsin.

The Wildcats have performed very well against Wisconsin in Evanston. In their last three victories against UW at home, Northwestern has posted an average of nearly 23 points per game while holding the Badgers to just 12 points per game. The Wildcats typically perform well at home, and the Badgers will look to break their string of losses this weekend.

Although the Badgers lead the all-time series 60-38-5, they always seem to have trouble at Ryan Field. If Wisconsin wants to make a good impression in their first game under Leonhard’s direction, they will need to steal a victory in the stadium where they have struggled as of late.

Wisconsin has the edge in talent in this matchup, but it remains to be seen if they can snap their string of losses on the road.

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