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Behind Enemy Lines: Wisconsin hoping for a return to prominence under Luke Fickell

The former Buckeye is back in the Big Ten and looking to unseat his alma mater as the king of the conference.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about checking in on Ohio State’s opponents. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Behind Enemy Line” articles here.


The Wisconsin Badgers began their 2022 football season two up, three down (2-3), including a stinker of a home loss to Washington State and two other losses in which they had their doors blown completely off by Ohio State and Illinois. These embarrassing early defeats – as well as the general malaise of the program – led to head coach Paul Chryst’s firing on Oct. 2, 2022, putting an end to his otherwise solid tenure.

I guess the power of Chryst no longer compelled... And I stand by that joke.

Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The former Badger quarterback and 2x Big Ten Coach of the Year led his alma mater to three Big Ten West division titles in 2016, 2017, and 2019, but then oddly forgot how to put points on the board post-pandemic. I say ‘oddly’ because Chryst made his coaching bones as a QB whisperer and offensive coordinator. You never would have guessed it by watching him and Graham Mertz struggle to figure out the forward pass like it was a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, but the former once coached/mentored a 4,000-yard passer at Oregon State (Derek Anderson, 2003).

No points led to no job for Chryst, leaving UW’s (former) defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to try and pick up the pieces of a broken 2022 season. Leonhard guided the Badgers to a 4-3 record and seemed to have the players’ support when it came to potentially landing the permanent HC position. But Wisconsin’s decision makers had something – or someone – much bigger in mind. A move and a hire that would send shockwaves through the world of college football.

On Nov. 27, 2022, the school officially named Luke Fickell as its 31st head football coach, stealing him away from Cincinnati where he had risen to national prominence. Fickell is one of college football’s best active coaches and should lead the Badgers back to some sort of glory. He is, however, joining a loaded Big Ten conference — and taking a big step up in competition from the AAC.

Fickell did not arrive in Madison planning to battle opponents all by himself. After just one month on the job, he brought in Phil Longo to be Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator, fresh off the latter’s successful run at North Carolina. Leonhard departed as the team’s defensive coordinator, but his loss should be minimized by the presence of both Fickell and Mike Tressel, who joined the new HC in coming over from UC. This new staff should infuse new life into the former B1G West juggernaut and force the entire conference to take the Badgers seriously once again.

In addition to Fickell and his coaching staff, there are plenty of other fresh faces in Madison. Wisconsin brought in several transfer players to not only provide depth, but also give the team a new offensive identity. In years past, the Badgers would rack up 30, 40, even 50 rushing attempts per game and be quite happy grinding away games. But with former Oklahoma and SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai expected to start in 2023, and Longo calling the plays, one can reasonably expect to see the ball in the air much more frequently.

Because Mordecai and Longo are adept at running/calling an air raid-style offense; the exact opposite of what Wisky fans are used to. Fickell’s squad also added two other QBs and four wide receivers via the portal, with the WRs expected to contribute immediately. Of course, star running back Braelon Allen is still a Badger, which is great news for UW.

The homegrown battering ram is a hell of a talent and one of the most dangerous RBs in the country. Similar in size to Derrick Henry, Allen rushed for 1,242 yards in 2022, despite receiving all the focus and attention from opposing defenses. If Wisconsin can keep him fed and chuck the ball downfield efficiently, then the rest of the Big Ten could be in for a very rude awakening.

On defense, the Badgers are going to badger... opponents, like they always have and always do. Despite lacking ‘stars’ in 2022, Wisconsin’s defense finished the season ranked 11th (nationally) in total defense and 17th in points per game allowed. And that PPG stat was actually a huge step back compared to previous seasons! Leonhard’s unit had finished 10th, 9th, and 4th in the previous three.

But I do not expect his former team to experience a drastic dropoff. Fickell and Tressel are great defensive minds in their own right, and they will have plenty of tools with which to work.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Big man Keeanu Benton and sack artist Nick Herbig are gone from last year’s UW defense, but the team’s top three tacklers return. Maema Njongmeta, Jordan Turner, and C.J. Goetz are all back in the fold after having combined for 222 tackles and 25.5 tackles for loss last season. Behind them, the secondary is not nearly as strong, but one could have said the same thing going into 2022. And the Badgers still only allowed 204 passing yards per game. Shootouts might present a bit of an issue, but with the team’s improved (on paper) offense, they should at least be better equipped to trade football bullets if the situation arises.

What’s going to be interesting is whether Wisconsin can come together – as a new staff and a new team – while completely changing their offensive style and trying to win games in a tough, tough conference. The Badgers’ 2023 schedule did work out quite well for a potential transition season, as they avoid(ed) both Penn State and TTUN. And they don’t play a ‘solid’ team until mid-October... But then they get Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio State in three consecutive weeks.

The last team mentioned above is the only one LGHL and its readers really care about, so I would just remind everybody that the Buckeyes stomped the Badgers 52-21 last season. But that was then, and this is now. Luke Fickell is a heck of a coach, and as a fan of his, I hope that he brings Wisconsin back to prominence. I expect that he will, and in relatively short order. However, I don’t think he has the horses quite yet.

Give him and his staff a year or two to replenish talent, then we’re probably talking about a top-2, 3, or 4 team in the Big Ten. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they put together a strong 2023 season.