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Jim Polzin: It's time for Paul Chryst's seat to get warmer after embarrassing effort

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University of Wisconsin football players John Torchio, Jake Chaney, Nick Herbig and Jack Eschenbach discuss going forward after the Badgers' second straight loss, 34-10 to Illinois on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

If ever there were a time for a University of Wisconsin football program teetering on the edge of a catastrophe to take a stand, it was halftime Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

In fact, that was UW coach Paul Chryst’s exact message to his team before they went out for the second half. It wasn’t like there was a chorus of boos as the Badgers made their way to the locker room, but some definitely could be heard after a lackluster first half that ended with Illinois leading by four points.

Chryst later admitted he realized UW was "at a moment right there" and said as much to his players, with some colorful language thrown in for good measure.

“Coach talked about drawing a (expletive) line in the sand,” UW tight end Jack Eschenbach said, “and just take it play by play.”

What does it say about this team, about the direction of this program, that UW’s response after hearing that message was to produce one of the worst halves seen around these parts in quite some time?

Illinois 34, UW 10.

It was make-or-break time for Chryst and the Badgers.

And they broke.

I ended my column a week ago pondering whether a 52-21 loss at No. 3 Ohio State was rock bottom for a program trending in the wrong direction, and UW made us wait exactly seven days for an answer.

Nope, this hole goes even lower.

I’ve been asked all week if Chryst is on the hot seat, and my response all week has been that no, I don’t sense that it’s even particularly warm. But it should be now after this pathetic display that resulted in UW’s most lopsided home defeat since a 48-7 drubbing by Penn State in 2008.

UW athletic director Chris McIntosh gave a perfectly reasonable answer — or at least I thought it was — Wednesday afternoon when I asked him about the state of the program. A guy with a long history in this program, first as a player and now as an administrator, pointed to other times over the past 25-plus years where the Badgers had been in a rut and climbed out of it.

But this one feels different, and that second half was telling in so many ways.

When I asked Chryst after the game where he was at emotionally, his response included zero words relating to emotion. That’s who he is, I get it, but I really was hoping to hear something that gave a hint as to where his mind is at right now. Angry, disgusted, embarrassed, something.

“I’ve been around this game for a long time, and I think it's one of the things you respect about the game,” he said. “Do you want to be better? Absolutely. And you just want to focus on the things that you can do to help move the needle, help our players and assistant coaches.

“We knew going in — and been fortunate to be around and having coached a long time — it’s never easy. So I didn't think it's going to be easy, and yet I believe in this group and I like this group. I appreciate where they're coming from and how they go about it. I look forward to each day I get to be with them. We get to be together again, and we've got to roll up our sleeves and continue to go to work.”

Chryst said in the opening statement to his postgame news conference that “no one wants to be where we’re at” and the scary thing is that it only may get worse if he can’t help the Badgers recover from this tailspin.

Losing at home to Washington State was bad. Getting blown out on national television by Ohio State was humiliating. Getting bullied at home by Illinois, which is five games into Year 2 of a rebuild, was just sad.

“Something’s off,” UW safety John Torchio said. “What’s off? We need to figure that out.”

Making this gut punch even more painful was the man who delivered it. Illinois coach Bret Bielema followed the Badger Blueprint to ensure a happy homecoming at his former place of employment. Illinois imposed its will at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and, unlike UW, Bielema's team didn’t shoot itself in the foot.

The Badgers’ self-inflicted wounds included 10 penalties and three turnovers. There even may have been a hint of surrender if you still were paying attention late in the third quarter and into the final 15 minutes.

I thought the first half at Ohio State was ugly until witnessing that second half Saturday.

The defense had the first chance to draw a line in the sand and instead allowed Illinois to go 75 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown that gave it a 21-10 cushion.

UW’s offense, meanwhile, managed 27 yards in 15 plays over four series to start the second half.

The special teams completed the trifecta of awful when Isaac Guerendo kicked the ball right to an Illinois player after letting a kickoff go through his arms.

The lead grew to 24-10 then 31-10. Whether it was gallows humor or just a strange coincidence, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” blared over the loudspeaker late in the third quarter, but belief had left the building by that point. So did a lot of fans in the announced crowd of 73,502 after the last note of “Jump Around” rang out a few minutes later.

Get off your feet and jump ... in the car.

If Chryst has lost this team, you wouldn’t know it by listening to his players after the game.

“Coach Chryst isn’t out there playing, we are,” linebacker Jake Chaney said. “We’ve got some of the best coaches in the nation, so it really came down to the players.”

Torchio echoed that sentiment.

“I love the coaches,” he said. "Coach Leonhard, coach Chryst, I have no problems with them at all and I would say to people who put the flak on them, we’re the people out there. We need to execute. They’re calling the right plays, they’re doing the right things. We need to execute as players. ... Don’t be mad at coach Chryst for the defense not getting off the field. Be mad at me.”

Fair enough, but the coaches can’t be left off the hook.

Chryst is making more than $5 million a year — ironically, an $800,000 payday was scheduled to hit his account Saturday — and has underperformed the past two-plus seasons.

He made much-needed changes to his offensive staff in the offseason, but those moves don’t seem to be working. The game plan is just as stale under offensive coordinator Bobby Engram as it was under Chryst last season and Joe Rudolph in 2020, with precious few in-game adjustments when it’s clear things aren’t working.

UW kept running into an eight-man box as if something magically would change. It didn’t.

The Badgers took the field trailing by 21 points with 6-plus minutes in the third quarter and ran the ball on three consecutive plays before Graham Mertz threw an incomplete pass on fourth down. That came after Engram’s bizarre decision to have tailback Braelon Allen attempt a pass out of the wildcat formation on a third-and-2 play in the second quarter.

So it’s admirable for the players to take some responsibility and blame execution, which indeed is a big part of the problem. But it seems like they’re being put in bad spots by the coaching staff far too often.

“They do such a good job of getting us the right messages, the right game plan,” Mertz said. “They give us all the right stuff, and in the end it comes down to us. We’ve got to execute it, hands down. Coach said (and) he hit the nail on the head during halftime. You’ve got to draw the line in the sand at some point, like what are you going to do about it? I think the line’s been drawn and gone through it about 10 times now.”

Therein lies the problem: This program has received plenty of wake-up calls over the past three seasons — or four or five — and can’t seem to snap out of this slumber.

Instead of drawing a line in this sand, they’re sinking in it.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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