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First look: Washington State coach Jake Dickert returns to his home state for major nonconference test at No. 18 Wisconsin

Washington State head coach Jake Dickert reacts to a play during the second half of the Battle of the Palouse football game against Idaho on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? First-year Washington State coach Jake Dickert will return to his home state and the Cougars will play their most significant nonconference game in recent history when they meet 18th-ranked Wisconsin.

Where is it? WSU will travel to Madison and compete in front of more than 80,000 fans at historic Camp Randall Stadium, one of the 50 largest sports arenas in the world.

When is it? Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m. Pacific.

Where can I watch it? Fox will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? The Badgers opened as 17.5-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU was given a tougher-than-expected test in the Battle of the Palouse against Idaho, an FCS program that came into the game as a four-touchdown underdog. The Cougars’ defense impressed, but their offense performed inconsistently and coughed up three fumbles on Saturday at Gesa Field. WSU erased a 10-point deficit and held off a late Vandals rally to open the Dickert era with a nail-biting, 24-17 victory.

“Our guys played hard, but there is a toughness, there is a mental fortitude, there is a strain and a push that we fell short on,” Dickert said Monday. “I love that our guys were a little disappointed coming in this morning. But we’ve flushed it, we cleared it. We gotta be more physical. We gotta be tougher.”

The Badgers cruised to a 38-0 rout of FCS Illinois State at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin piled up 221 rushing yards – 148 on 14 carries for superstar Braelon Allen. Quarterback Graham Mertz passed 14 of 16. The Badger defense allowed just 243 yards. Spearheaded by one of the nation’s premier defenses, the Badgers compiled a 9-4 record last season, topping Arizona State 20-13 in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Why WSU will win: It’s no secret that Wisconsin will rely greatly on its ground game. The Badgers always tend to be a run-heavy team – they averaged 43 rushing attempts per game last season and boasted a top-25 rushing attack nationally. The good news: WSU’s defensive front seems well-equipped for the challenge.

The veteran-laden defensive line is probably WSU’s strongest position group. The linebacking corps is also deep and talented. Those two units presented major matchup problems last weekend for Idaho, which surrendered seven sacks and averaged just 1.8 yards per carry.

Of course, it’s impossible to compare the FCS Vandals’ offensive line and tailbacks to the elite blockers and bruising ball-carriers at Wisconsin. The Badgers enjoy NFL-caliber talent on the O-line and in their running back room every year. But the Cougs might have one of the top defensive fronts in the Pac-12 – starting edge rushers Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. are two of the conference’s most disruptive defenders.

“We’re going to lean on our front all year,” Dickert said.

The key for WSU will be to hold the Badgers’ ground game in check on early downs and force Wisconsin to dial up passing plays for Mertz, a third-year starter and a game-manager quarterback who usually isn’t called upon to spark his team’s offense. The Badgers’ passing offense ranked 120th in the FBS last year.

The Cougars use blitzing exotics effectively on passing downs. They pride themselves on a swarming style of defense, which will be crucial against Wisconsin’s powerful running back: Braelon Allen, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound All-American.

The debut of the “Coug Raid” on Saturday left much to be desired. But if the Cougars can sharpen up their passing game, they should be able to find some cracks in a new-look Wisconsin secondary, which lost several key players to graduation after last season and will be playing Saturday without one of its standout pieces – safety Hunter Wohler is sidelined with a leg injury, the team announced.

The Badgers don’t often face up-tempo, pass-heavy offensive systems in the Big Ten Conference. Perhaps that will work in WSU’s favor.

Why Wisconsin will win: The Badgers’ defense was arguably the best in the FBS last season. Several key players from that unit have departed, but Wisconsin reloaded well this offseason and appears poised for another nationally notable defensive campaign.

Wisconsin finished first in the FBS last year in total defense (239 yards allowed per game) and rushing defense (64.8 yards). The Badgers held opponents to just 16 points and 174 passing yards per game, ranking fourth and fifth nationally in those categories.

Traditionally, the Badgers are exceptional on the defensive front. That seems to be the case again this season. Wisconsin is led by outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who logged nine sacks last year and earned second-team AP All-America honors, and nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who landed on multiple preseason All-America teams.

“Against this defense, which has been top 10 for the last 10 years it feels like, you can’t get yourself behind the chains,” Dickert said.

It’s hard to be too encouraged about WSU’s prospects on offense this weekend. The new Air Raid struggled in its debut against a midtier Big Sky opponent. The Cougars committed three turnovers and endured two long stretches of stagnation. Clearly, WSU’s offense can’t afford to play like that in Madison.

The Badger D-line will have an advantage against a WSU O-line that is much less experienced, and protecting a first-year Cougars quarterback in Cameron Ward, who is early in the process of finding his feet at the Power Five level. Cougars tailback Nakia Watson was given room to run last weekend, but gaps in the line of scrimmage will be far less frequent on Saturday.

WSU needs a superb effort from its defensive front to have a chance at stopping Allen, who runs behind a veteran offensive line that includes a few NFL draft prospects. Allen amassed 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman last season, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. He was recently named a preseason second-team AP All-American. Allen is a watch list player for both the Maxwell Award (top all-around player in the country) and the Doak Walker Award (top running back in the nation).

What happened last time? The Cougars and Badgers have met twice before. Wisconsin dealt WSU and breakout quarterback Jack Thompson a 35-26 loss in 1976. The Cougars fell 42-21 at Camp Randall in 2007.

Things to know: 1. Dickert was born and raised in Wisconsin. He mostly grew up in the northeast part of the state – in a couple of towns both more than 100 miles away from Madison – but was a diehard Badgers fan as a kid. Dickert remembers attending a few games at Camp Randall. Most of his family members and friends still reside in the state, and more than 200 of them will make the trip to Madison this weekend. Dickert’s uncle, Gary Dickert, played on the defensive line for Wisconsin in the early 1970s. Jake Dickert also played his college ball in Wisconsin – he was a wide receiver at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

2. Nakia Watson will also be returning to his former home. The Cougars’ starting running back began his collegiate career at Wisconsin in 2018 and played steady snaps off the bench throughout the next two years. Watson registered 331 yards and two TDs on 74 carries in 14 games in 2019. He ran for 191 yards and three scores on 53 attempts in 2020, then transferred to WSU and sat behind senior RBs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh last year.

3. Excluding bowl games, WSU hasn’t participated in a nonconference game of this magnitude in years. The Cougars’ most recent matchup against a nonconference opponent from the Power Five ranks came in 2015, when WSU visited Big Ten member Rutgers and prevailed 37-34. Saturday’s game will be the Cougars’ most notable nonconference contest since 2013, when they fell 31-24 at Auburn to open their season. WSU last played a ranked nonconference opponent in the regular season in 2009, losing 40-14 to No. 25 Notre Dame.

4. The Badgers’ offense is guided by first-year coordinator Bobby Engram, who played wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks between 2001-08. Engram was an NFL assistant for 11 years before longtime Badger coach Paul Chryst decided to make a change at OC this offseason.