MADISON, Wisconsin – Washington State is a major underdog, playing on the road against a well-established program in a famous venue on national television.
The Cougars’ coach is quite familiar with his team’s coming opponent. A win this weekend would mean a great deal to him – and boost his team’s reputation considerably.
“What an opportunity,” Jake Dickert said. “In life, you only get so many opportunities, and you gotta take advantage of each and every one of them. This is a unique opportunity.”
Dickert is returning to his home state and the Cougars are looking for a signature win when they meet the 19th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in front of over 80,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium. The game will air on Fox.
“These are the moments,” Dickert said. “I love these challenges. To do it, it’s going to take something really special, but it’s not going to take an out-of-body experience. It’ll be in a different environment, and we just gotta make sure we’re focused on one play at a time.”
The Badgers (1-0) are 17.5-point favorites over WSU (1-0), which survived a mighty test from Idaho in Week 1. WSU, eager to prove itself after an uninspiring opener, has a chance to introduce itself to the college football world. The Cougs could also secure a particularly important victory for their first-year head coach, who grew up rooting for the Badgers and will have hundreds of loved ones in attendance.
If the Pac-12’s Cougars hope to pull off an upset in their most significant nonconference matchup in recent history, they’ll have to shrug off a hostile Big Ten environment, contain a powerful run game and play much cleaner offense than they did last week.
“Our team is ready for this environment and what it’s gonna mean, going on the road and trying to win against a really good football team,” Dickert said.
“We can talk about the outside and the environment and all this stuff, but what matters is what’s in the arena, how we play and how we perform and execute.”
WSU’s new Air Raid offense operated to mixed results in its debut.
“We know we weren’t our best, not even close to it,” slot receiver Renard Bell said. “We know we can only go up from there.”
The Cougars’ ground game functioned well, save two fumbles. Quarterback Cameron Ward and his pass-catchers found a groove on only a few drives against the FCS Vandals. Wisconsin has been one of the top 10 defensive teams in the FBS “for the last 10 years, it feels like,” Dickert noted.
“I have the utmost respect for (eighth-year Badgers coach Paul Chryst) because it isn’t just getting a program to a certain level that’s hard, it’s sustaining that success,” Dickert said. “They play hard, they play physical, they play tough. They’re as advertised. They’re as big as we’ve seen, probably as big as you can get in our league.”
Last season, the Badgers owned the nation’s No. 1-ranked total defense (239 yards per game) and rushing defense (64.8 yards). They were among the five best in the country in passing defense and scoring defense, too.
Wisconsin lost several key pieces to graduation, but restocked and seems primed for another impressive defensive campaign, spearheaded by stellar play up front. Expect the Cougs to take an up-tempo approach and try to use speed as a counter to Wisconsin’s defensive strengths.
Offensively, the Badgers thrive on the ground. Their program is known for producing elite running backs and offensive linemen. This year, they have a pro prospect in the backfield and a few NFL hopefuls blocking for him. Sophomore tailback Braelon Allen, one of the nation’s most productive ball-carriers and a Doak Walker Award watch list player, is “maybe going to be the best (running back) to ever come through there,” Dickert said.
“He just bounces off guys,” he added. “The thing that makes him unique is his patience. He hit a 96-yarder (last weekend versus Illinois State), but it wasn’t just up the hole and gone. He was patient to the left and cut it all the way back. It’s very rare to have that size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) and speed to take it to the house like that.”
Few teams have managed to limit Allen so far in his young career. But the Cougars, boasting depth and talent in their D-line and linebacking corps, feel well-equipped for the challenge. On the brightest stage WSU has seen in some time, the team will lean heavily on its most proven group: the defensive front.
“It’s a different test, a different task – the way (the Badgers) play the game,” Dickert said. “They’re OK with a punt. They’re OK with grinding yards and 4-yard runs over and over. It’s the mentality stuff – we gotta make sure we’re doing our jobs, and when the opportunity comes, we gotta take advantage of it.
“When we get the opportunity to make a play, we gotta go make a play against a good football team, because we are a good football team and we gotta go prove that this week.”