Understandably, outsiders who aren’t intimately familiar with the current state of Wisconsin’s football program were shocked when the Badgers parted ways with coach Paul Chryst last week.

Chryst seemed as airtight as a coach can get — a Madison native and Wisconsin alum who won 72% of his games in 8 seasons. The Badgers hadn’t fired a football coach since 1989, so canning Chryst felt like madness when viewed from a certain perspective.

Interim coach Jim Leonhard needed just 1 game — actually, only the first half — to demonstrate why a change was due.

Wisconsin’s stale offense looked as fresh a Whole Foods on Saturday as the Badgers scored 28 points in the first half of a 42-7 win at Northwestern.

Quarterback Graham Mertz had his best performance since his 2020 career debut, sizzling the Wildcats for 299 yards and 5 touchdowns. Mertz, whose inconsistencies were blamed as the key factor in Chryst’s firing, is now the only Wisconsin quarterback to throw for 5 touchdowns in a game twice. He’s also the only one to do it on the road.

And the only reason Mertz didn’t end up with a 6th TD pass is because the Badgers decided to have a little fun. Lined up in the wildcat, running back Braelon Allen lofted a scrambling 23-yard strike to fellow running back Chez Mellusi to put Wisconsin ahead 28-0 late in the second quarter.

Allen’s touchdown pass was everything Wisconsin’s offense has not been the past couple seasons — creative, improvisational and a whole lot of fun.

Obviously, the opponent helped. Northwestern removed any doubt that it is the Big Ten’s worst team in 2022, getting run out of its home stadium on homecoming.

The Wildcats are winless in the United States this season, dropping 5 straight after opening with a win over Nebraska in Ireland. Northwestern has lost 6 straight home games going back to last season. If you count a game at Wrigley Field as a home contest, the Cats have 7 straight losses in Cook County.

So it’s not as if Wisconsin’s dismantling of Northwestern proves that the Badgers are about to run the table.

But it does show that Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh is a savvy operator.

Clearly, he recognized that games at Northwestern and Michigan State were ideal opportunities for Leonhard to get his feet wet. Last week’s blowout loss to Illinois was merely a tipping point that fast-forwarded Leonhard’s ascension in Madison.

Keep Bobby Engram on the sideline

Another apparent benefit of the coaching change? It necessitated moving offensive coordinator Bobby Engram from the press box to the sidelines.

Leonhard wouldn’t commit to making the change permanent during his postgame interview on Big Ten Network. But we’re guessing it sticks.

Wisconsin’s 322 passing yards were its most in a Big Ten game since Joel Stave hit that total exactly twice in 2015. The Badgers gained more than 500 yards against a conference foe for just the second time since 2018. And the other time was against Rutgers.

The passing game was so effective that you almost forgot about Allen as a runner. A week after Illinois limited the Badgers to 2 rushing yards, Wisconsin’s run game was back. Allen did his usual thing, picking up 135 yards on 23 carries.

It defies belief that Wisconsin was sitting on this much offensive explosiveness. But it’s a pretty searing indictment of how things had fallen under Chryst.

In 2018, he had the Badgers trailing only Ohio State in the B1G in yards per play. This season, Wisconsin was last in the league in that department through 2 conference games. That will change after the Badgers gutted the Wildcats for 7.6 yards per play.

This was the Wisconsin offense that was envisioned when Mertz opened his career with 5 touchdowns against Illinois in 2020. But it didn’t materialize again until his first game without Chryst.

A suddenly sunny forecast

It looks possible that Ohio State and Illinois were the meatiest pieces on Wisconsin’s schedule.

Michigan State can’t stop a nosebleed right now, so Leonhard could be 2-0 when he makes his Camp Randall debut against Purdue. And though the Boilermakers will likely be favored, they haven’t beaten Wisconsin since Leonhard was a player. A 15-game losing streak is a heck of a thing to snap.

If Wisconsin gets over that hump, it’s possible the Badgers roll into the season finale with Minnesota on a 6-game winning streak.

But Leonhard hardly needs that to happen to secure this job in the long term. On Saturday, the Badgers combined offensive competence with a vintage Wisconsin defensive showing. Should that become the norm, Leonhard will erase any doubt that he is the future face of Wisconsin football.