Jim Leonhard has defense in his DNA but understands Wisconsin's offense must be more consistent and proficient

MADISON – Jim Leonhard knows defense.

It is in his DNA.

An All-American safety at Wisconsin, Leonhard found his niche under Rex Ryan with the Baltimore Ravens and later with the New York Jets and lasted 10 years in the NFL.

But now after six-plus seasons on Wisconsin’s defensive staff – one as secondary coach and five-plus as defensive coordinator – Leonhard is UW’s interim head coach, in charge of everything.

What does he want to see from UW’s struggling offense, beginning Saturday when the Badgers (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) face host Northwestern (1-4, 1-1) in a crucial West Division game?

In short, he wants to see a physical unit that can run the ball and attack with play-action.

"We have to start playing good football and winning games,"  said Leonhard, who took over Sunday after Paul Chryst was fired. "We have to find a way.

"What are the best 11 (players)? What are the issues we can cause? How can we impact a defense? ... Let’s go attack. Let’s cause some problems."

Leonhard did not specify that offensive coordinator Bobby Engram would continue calling plays but a source close to the team said Leonhard was open to making a change.

More: Jim Leonhard is Wisconsin's new interim head football coach after Paul Chryst was fired. Here's what you should know about him.

More: Success isn't guaranteed, but look for Jim Leonhard to take over as full-time coach if Wisconsin plays well the rest of the season.

More: Do UW officials want football championships? Of course, but they're realistic about matching Ohio State year after year.

Illinois' Keith Randolph Jr. and his defensive line mates made life rough on Wisconsin running back Chez Mellusi on Saturday.
Illinois' Keith Randolph Jr. and his defensive line mates made life rough on Wisconsin running back Chez Mellusi on Saturday.

The Badgers were 0-2 in the Big Ten, with losses to Penn State and Michigan, and 1-3 overall in early October last season. They jumped back into the West Division race with six consecutive league victories by relying heavily on their running game, which generated 278.7 yards per game during that streak.

The most significant difference this fall is that UW is struggling to run the ball against any defense with a pulse.

“You have to have everybody executing,” right guard Tanor Bortolini said. “One guy gets beat and his guy comes down the line and makes the play. It is tough to run the ball that way. Everyone has to be sound. If one guy is free, that changes everything.

“It comes down to execution. It comes down to the 11 guys on the field. If the 11 guys on the field don’t execute, it’s not going to work.”

UW rushed 35 times for 192 yards in the league opener against Ohio State, but 75 of those yards came on Braelon Allen’s final run, after the Buckeyes built their lead to 52-14 with 7 minutes 21 seconds left in the game.

UW rushed 24 times for 2 yards in the 34-10 loss to Illinois. Chez Mellusi and Allen combined for 18 yards on 15 carries, an average of 1.2 yards per carry.

The 2-yard performance was the Badgers’ worst since 2015, when they finished with minus-26 yards on 26 attempts in a 13-7 home loss to Northwestern.

UW’s struggles to run the ball against the Illini were evident on first-down plays.

The Badgers ran nine times for a total of 7 yards.

Allen ran six times on first down, for minus-1 yard. Allen, who appears to be running tentatively, finished with 2 yards on eight carries.

Mellusi carried three times for 8 yards on first down. Although Mellusi’s average on first-down runs was only 2.7 yards, he did attack the line of scrimmage.

“They did a good job of loading the box and fitting our outside zone stuff,” quarterback Graham Mertz said. “We’ve got to do a better job getting downhill and moving the chains.”

Mertz was far from perfect against the Illini and both of his interceptions led to touchdowns.

However, he was productive on first down by hitting 7 of 10 passes for 99 yards. Mertz hit first-down pass plays of 10 yards or longer to four receivers – Skyler Bell, Jack Eschenbach, Keontez Lewis and Chimere Dike.

UW clearly was more effective throwing on early downs and the offensive coordinator might need to lean more on the arm of Mertz than the legs of Allen and Mellusi.

However, one factor in UW’s favor this week is that Northwestern’s defense has struggled to stop the run.

The Wildcats are allowing 172.6 rushing yards per game, the No. 13 mark in the Big Ten. Their pass defense has been better, allowing a 58.6% completion rate and 211.6 yards per game. The Wildcats have nearly as many interceptions (five) as touchdown passes allowed (seven).

Leonhard wants to see a football team that avoids penalties and is tough enough to battle for 60 minutes. UW has not done that for bulk of the first five games.

“To me, I just want clean football,” Leonhard said. “Penalties – all phases – we’ve got to clean things up. We have to tighten up what we do. We’ve got to demand these guys to be accountable for style of play."

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin interim football coach Jim Leonhard wants physical Badgers