EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — The nerves that hit Jim Leonhard during the week as he prepared for his first game following longtime boss Paul Chryst's firing were long gone by the time game day rolled around.
He woke up feeling just fine. This made his day better.
Graham Mertz threw for a career-high 299 yards and matched one with five touchdowns, Chimere Dike set personal bests with 185 yards receiving and three TD catches, and Wisconsin dominated in interim coach Leonhard’s first game, pounding struggling Northwestern 42-7 on Saturday.
Braelon Allen added 135 yards rushing. He also threw a 23-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, and the Badgers (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) raced out to a 28-0 halftime lead on the way to an easy win in their first game since Chryst was fired.
“There was a lot more nerves throughout the week than there was today,” the 39-year-old Leonhard said. “Gameday is gameday. I've been a part of a lot of these, obviously not in this role. This is the reward. You put in the work, you put in the time and you should have confidence when you step off that bus that you have the right plan, you have the right guys, you put them in position to have success.”
Wisconsin decided to make a leadership change following losses by a combined 55 points to Ohio State and Illinois, led by former coach Bret Bielema. Chryst was let go in his eighth season and replaced by Leonhard, a former All-America safety in his sixth year as defensive coordinator and seventh on staff at his alma mater.
“I lost one of my best friends that I saw everyday,” said linebacker Nick Herbig, who spoke to Chryst on Friday. “I miss that guy for sure. I know he was watching us.”
Herbig wouldn't reveal much about his conversation with Chryst, though he said Leonhard had a message to the team.
“He told us it was was still Coach Chryst's team. We're playing for him,” Herbig said.
Mertz completed 20 of 29 passes.
Dike had touchdown receptions of 52 and 21 yards in the first half as well as a 6-yarder in the fourth quarter. He caught 10 passes and easily surpassed his previous high of 106 yards.
Wisconsin racked up 515 yards in all and finished with 193 on the ground after being held to 2 yards rushing on 24 carries for its lowest total since 2015.
Northwestern (1-5, 1-2) lost its fifth straight since opening with a win over Nebraska in Ireland. The Wildcats are 6-16 since beating Wisconsin at home in 2020 on the way to winning the Big Ten West.
Ryan Hilinski threw for 147 yards and was intercepted twice.
“Our lack of focus and discipline to execute is my responsibility as their coach,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “What are we doing between Thursday walking off the practice field and the game?”
The Badgers missed a field goal on the game's opening drive, but took control with touchdowns on their next two possessions.
Mertz capped a nine-play, 98-yard march when he hit a wide open Skyler Bell for a 15-yarder, and Wisconsin wasted little time adding to it.
Kamo’i Latu intercepted Hilinski near midfield. Three plays later, Dike caught a pass from Mertz over the middle to start the second quarter and outran several defenders for a 52-yard score.
Dike set up another touchdown with a 43-yard catch, this time hauling in a 21-yarder from Mertz midway through the quarter to bump the lead to 21-0. Allen took a direct snap and threw a 23-yard TD to Chez Mellusi with just over two minutes left in the half to make it a 28-point game.
Northwestern had a chance to score just before the break, only to come away empty-handed when Jack Olsen missed a 21-yarder on his first attempt this season as time expired.
The Wildcats converted a fourth-and-1 at the 4 in the final minute and threw two incompletions before coach Pat Fitzgerald opted to go for the field goal with two seconds remaining and the ball on the 3. Fans booed and they weren't happy, either, when the kick went wide left.
Leonhard said defensive back Cedric Dort was feeling “much better” after being taken from the field on a cart early in the third. Dort hit his head on the ground and stayed motionless for several minutes after breaking up a pass early. He eventually sat up and teammates surrounded him before he was carted off the field.
Wisconsin: The Badgers put aside the turmoil and capped a week that began with their coach getting fired by rolling to a lopsided win.
Northwestern: Fitzgerald's team remains in a freefall.
Wisconsin: Visit Michigan State on Oct. 15.
Northwestern: Visit Maryland on Oct. 22.
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