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How Jim Leonhard vs. Ryan Day could swing Wisconsin vs. Ohio State

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Jim Leonhard as play-caller

Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard (center) squares off against Ohio State coach and offensive play-caller Ryan Day for the fifth time this Saturday. Day and the Buckeyes are 4-0 in the previous matchups. 

Badgers football beat reporter Colten Bartholomew and columnist Jim Polzin preview Wisconsin's toughest regular season matchup in 2022 when the Badgers head to Columbus to take on No. 3 Ohio State Saturday.

Two heavyweights of college football will duke it out from the sidelines of Ohio Stadium on Saturday.

Yes, the University of Wisconsin will be trying to snap an eight-game losing streak against the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes. But that’s not the battle to which the first sentence of this story refers. That would be the matchup of Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and Ohio State coach and offensive play-caller Ryan Day.

If the Badgers have a shot at pulling the upset late Saturday night, it’ll be because Leonhard and the UW defense kept the Buckeyes from making too many explosive plays and allowed the offense to stay within striking distance. That’s easier said than done, as Leonhard has learned in his tenure as UW’s defensive coordinator. The Buckeyes have averaged 33 points and UW’s average margin of defeat has been 16.7 points in the three games Leonhard has coordinated against Ohio State.

“To me, he's very calculated, and they adjust things really well,” Leonhard said about Day’s play-calling. “I think it's pretty proven he's a very good second-half play-caller. They make adjustments as games go on, they see that chess match and they counter certain things that you do. He's very calculated in how he attacks and how he uses his talent.

“You see the reasoning on why they do a lot of things that they do. Doesn't make it easier to defend it, but you kind of tip the cap to them. They don't put themselves in bad positions very often. And if they can find ways to attack something that they know, they're going to take advantage of it.”

Leonhard will have to find a way to carry over his unit’s strong play against Ohio State in the first half through halftime. The Buckeyes have averaged 12.6 points in the first half against Leonhard’s UW defenses and 20.3 in the second.

Day arrived at Ohio State in 2017, starting as the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before taking over as acting head coach the following season when Urban Meyer was placed on administrative leave. He was named the program’s coach in 2019. He never has had a Buckeyes offense average less than 41 points per game in a season, and his team enters this week averaging 47.7 points through three games. Day’s offenses have finished sixth, eighth, third, 11th and first in scoring nationally since he took over.

Leonhard has been equally impactful on the Badgers' defense after inheriting a group already used to success under coordinators Dave Aranda and Justin Wilcox. UW ranks third in points allowed nationally (17.3 per game) over Leonhard’s tenure, and first in total yards allowed (284.8 per game).

“I think he's got a great knowledge of the game,” UW coach Paul Chryst said about Leonhard. “I think he and our staff do a great job of prepping our guys so they know what's coming. I think they do a great job of coaching them so they understand why this is being called, where it fits. And like anything, there's a timeliness to it, and I think he's got that.”

Day shared his respect for Leonhard as a play-calling adversary at Big Ten media days in July.

“He’s excellent,” Day said about Leonhard. “His players play really hard, he’s got really good answers. He kind of knows when it’s time to heat everybody up or when it’s time to back off and play some coverage. Schematically, he’s very good, but his players play really hard.”

NFL influences

Both Day and Leonhard had significantly different experiences in the NFL.

Day was the quarterbacks coach under Chip Kelly for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 and the San Francisco 49ers in 2016. Kelly was a major influence on Day, who played quarterback for Kelly at the University of New Hampshire. Day effectively has blended elements of Kelly’s vertical passing game and the rushing attack Meyer already had established at OSU to create a balanced, explosive attack.

“I think that (he) certainly understands (the system), and the players understand it, and so (he) can find the cheats,” Chryst said about Day. “If you're doing something to take away something or make it harder on something, he knows where the cheats are.

“Credit to him, I think that's what's impressive. I think that's what he allows them to do, and he's built it so they can do that.”

Leonhard never coached in the NFL, but his 10-year NFL career included four seasons under Rex Ryan. The first was Ryan’s last season as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator (2008) and the other three when Ryan was the coach of the New York Jets (2009-11). Those years were formative for Leonhard as a player, and he became a starter for Ryan despite being undrafted out of UW. They also laid the foundation for the coaching style Leonhard would adopt.

“I gave him so many options on the field,” Ryan told the State Journal last week. “‘Hey, in this formation, we want to blitz; in this formation, I want you to go back.’ We would call things like ‘Badger’ or something, and then he would have to make, based on formation, the decision that we wanted him to do. Does he blitz, play coverage, whatever it was? I would do that a lot with them. And he would always own his half of the field. … He had all the other intangibles we wanted in a player; that was Jim Leonhard. And I knew that if he ever decided to be a coach that he would be one hell of a coach, and he turned out to be, obviously.”

Ryan laughed recounting how Leonhard kept all materials related to the Ravens defense and could compare it to what Ryan was doing with the Jets.

“He called them the Bibles, he had the Old Testament and the New Testament,” Ryan said. “He saved everything.”

As a player, Leonhard relied on his instincts and film study to make up for his lack of size. Those same instincts buoy his work leading the Badgers defense. Players rave about Leonhard’s ability to cut through the disguises an offense attempts to put on its concepts and gives his players simple reads — if this happens, do that; if that happens, do this.

Ryan says that’s the marking of a great defensive play-caller and coach.

“That's instinctive, but it's also through knowledge and through preparation,” Ryan said. “There's no shortcut to success, no shortcut to being able to do that. That's what Jim does. He's not a guy that looks for shortcuts — he's a guy that prepares, he's smart and studied, and he knows how to teach it. And because there's some great players that are horse***t coaches, but this guy was an outstanding player and he's able to translate it and teach, and I think that's kind of rare. Quite honestly, that's really rare.”

Closing the talent gap

Leonhard's game plan and calling of plays are ways the Badgers can close the talent gap that exists between the two programs.

Ohio State features arguably the deepest and best group of receivers in college football. Jaxon Smith-Njigba caught more passes and gained more receiving yards last season than two Buckeyes receivers drafted in the first round by NFL teams, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. Behind Smith-Njigba is a cadre of weapons like Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr., both of whom are averaging more than 100 yards receiving per game. Add in a Heisman-finalist quarterback in C.J. Stroud with All-Big Ten tailback TreVeyon Henderson, and Leonhard's defense will be stretched to match the speed with which the Buckeyes play.

“There’s time you can't make up for the gap of talent, but then there's other times you can,” Ryan said. “And if there's an opportunity to do that, to make it up, then Jim will find a way.”

One way Leonhard's play-calling can negate OSU's big-play ability is by putting pressure on Stroud, whether it be blitzing or creating the right matchups for his rushers to win without overloading the line. But Ohio State counters with a talented offensive line, including tackles Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones. That unit has allowed two sacks on 101 dropbacks this season.

Leonhard's defensive game plan in the 2019 Big Ten championship game featured heavy pressure up the middle against quarterback Justin Fields, who was nursing a knee injury, and it kept the Buckeyes to seven points in the first half. But injuries to players like linebackers Chris Orr and Noah Burks decreased Leonhard's flexibility, and Fields made plays down the field after moving behind the line to buy time.

UW prioritizes stopping the run first and foremost, a tall task against a Buckeyes team averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Making OSU one-dimensional would allow Leonhard to send creative pressures at Stroud, but that requires UW's offense to give him a lead with which to work.

Purdue coach Jeff Brohm has stood on the opposite sideline of both Day and Leonhard, and he has direct knowledge of calling plays against Leonhard with the Boilermakers’ offense.

“He’s creative in what he does,” Brohm said about Leonhard. “He has the ability to load the box, give you different fronts, plays with athletic defensive ends that he stands up. The ability to bring certain people and drop people out, has the ability to challenge you in a lot of different ways. He makes it hard on you.”

Leonhard acknowledges his game plan and the operation of getting plays in from the sideline has to be sharp. One mistake, like the one Leonhard said he made against Washington State that allowed a big pass play into the red zone, can be the difference in getting a stop and allowing a touchdown against the explosive Buckeyes.

Leonhard spoke to the team after Monday’s practice and was clear: Saturday isn’t a typical game. Treat it as such.

“You're kidding yourself if going and playing in front of 100,000 people — on the road for the first time — if you're going to have that same feeling pregame that we did last week,” Leonhard said.

“So it's not necessarily to make the game bigger or smaller than it is. It's one, it's one of one right in the schedule, you’ve got to handle it that way. But from an approach standpoint, there's certain things that change when you play on the road, there's certain things that change when you play against talented groups that you have to understand. The urgency of how you handle your business this week needs to be there.”

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