MADISON, Wis. – Jake Dickert choked up when he spoke about the support of his family and the spirit of his team. His voice was heavy with emotion throughout his postgame news conference on Saturday evening.
The Washington State coach’s feelings were more than warranted.
He had just led an incredibly memorable victory – certainly a win he will always cherish, and a win that will probably go down as one of the most celebrated triumphs in WSU program history, considering the storylines surrounding Saturday’s game.
In his first season as WSU’s head coach, Dickert returned to his home state and guided an upset win over the team he grew up idolizing. Hundreds of his friends and family members were in attendance. Clearly, this was the most significant individual accomplishment of his career so far.
“I just know each and every one of them is proud of me and they’re proud of this program, and I’m proud to wear Dickert on my back, because I represent them,” he said.
The Cougars, who entered the matchup as considerable underdogs, proved themselves on a national stage in an immensely challenging environment. They used a resilient effort to stun the 19th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, grinding out a 17-14 decision in front of 80,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” Dickert said when asked about his initial reaction to the final whistle, when his players swarmed him in a congratulatory mosh. He shed tears of joy as loved ones greeted him with long embraces outside the Cougs’ locker room. “We’re going to celebrate this one, but there is so much more to do. It shows us what we can do, what we are capable of.
“We can beat anybody if we don’t beat ourselves.”
The Cougars’ defense – a unit that has become known for forcing turnovers, playing with tenacity and bending but not breaking – collected a red-zone takeaway with about five minutes remaining, recording the final blow in a hard-fought contest that featured constant momentum changes.
On the 17th play of the Badgers’ final drive – and just the fourth passing play of the series – WSU edge rusher Quinn Roff poked the ball free from Wisconsin tight end Clay Cundiff’s grasp, and Coug safety Sam Lockett pounced on it. Two plays earlier, the Badgers had committed a would-be turnover when quarterback Graham Mertz was popped in the backfield by WSU edge rusher Ron Stone Jr., whose hit caused the pass to dangle in the air. Defensive tackle Christian Mejia came down with an interception but promptly coughed the ball up, right back into Wisconsin’s possession.
WSU’s offense hadn’t been able to sustain much success throughout the day, but the Cougars’ Air Raid found a rhythm late and worked its longest drive of the day, a 10-play series that killed the clock and sealed the important victory. WSU gained 22 of its 53 total rushing yards on its final series.
“We played a gritty 60 minutes of football,” Dickert said. “We played a gritty second half. (Wisconsin) is going to win a lot of football games, and they’re going to do it by wearing people out.
“Our guys have a fight in them. I’m so damn proud of them and how they played and kept fighting. That’s what it takes to win football games on the road.”
The Badgers dominated the Cougars in several stat categories, including time of possession (38:02 to 21:58), first downs (23 to 10), third-down conversions (8 for 15 against 2 for 11), total plays (75 to 50) and total yardage (401 to 253). Yet WSU’s defense limited big plays, and the Cougs’ offense made just enough of them to clip the Badgers (1-1) on the scoreboard.
“We just knew it was going to be whoever did their job the longest, and we did that today,” Stone said. “It was just about strain, start to finish.”
The Cougars (2-0) dialed up hidden pressure packages and received laudable effort from their defensive line and linebackers early in the game, containing Wisconsin’s superpowered rushing attack. WSU’s offense had few answers in the first half against the Badgers’ defensive front. Quarterback Cameron Ward was often pressured and the Cougars’ ground game couldn’t find any holes against one of the nation’s best run-stopping defenses, resulting in short possessions and a gassed WSU defense.
Wisconsin capitalized with two scoring drives in the second quarter. Mertz, taking advantage of a shorthanded WSU secondary that lost starting cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. to an injury early on, fired two touchdowns to Cundiff to open a 14-7 halftime lead.
“I felt like we did a good job stopping the run,” Dickert said.
The Badgers, traditionally one of the top rushing teams in the FBS, totaled 174 yards on 44 carries. All-American Braelon Allen had 98 yards on 21 attempts.
“We got a little leaky (later in the game),” Dickert said. “We made them play a different game. Unfortunately, they were successful playing that game for a while, throwing the football.”
The Cougars had only two drives of note in the first half – a 43-yard catch-and-run from Renard Bell moved them into the red zone on their first possession before Ward threw a risky pass toward the goal line and had it picked. On his third series, Ward completed a 33-yard floater to tight end Billy Riviere, setting up a short TD scamper from Nakia Watson, a first-year WSU starter at tailback and a former backup running back for the Badgers in 2019 and 2020.
“We were in the halftime locker room and there was so much belief,” Dickert said.
Bell sparked the Cougs out of the locker room with a 73-yard kickoff return, setting up a 26-yard field goal from Dean Janikowski. WSU then forced Wisconsin into a rare three-and-out and took the lead on the next possession – with a little good fortune and a phenomenal effort from slotback Lincoln Victor.
Ward absorbed a hit on third-and-10 and threw an off-target pass into the hands of Badger cornerback Jay Shaw, but Victor was nearby. He dove and blindsided Shaw with a jolting tackle, forcing a fumble that was recovered by WSU center Konner Gomness to give the Cougs a fresh set of downs. The visitors continued to plug away with short plays until Ward made an improvisational highlight on a second down, sliding around in the pocket and flipping a pass to Watson, who spun away from a tackler and had only open field ahead of him for a 31-yard touchdown, which fashioned the final score at the 5:12 mark of the third quarter.
“Normally, I’m not a person that cries,” Watson said. “But I cried a little bit, I’m not going to lie.
“I had a lot to prove today … most definitely a chip on my shoulder, playing against the old (teammates).”
Watson produced 54 yards from scrimmage and two scores in his return to Camp Randall. Ward, a highly touted FCS transfer who was playing in his first game against a major opponent, completed 17 of 28 passes for 200 yards with one TD and two picks. Ward appeared to settle down as the game progressed and distributed efficient, quick-release passes to seven receivers.
“For the program, I think it means everything coming to the the Big Ten, on the road and beating a good Wisconsin team,” Ward said. “It was big for us. We accepted the challenge that coach Dickert preached all week: ‘It’s going to be a big stage, probably one of the biggest stages we’re going to play in all year.’ For myself, it was a big moment, going on the road in a big-time Power Five game. I just feel like it was a stepping stone in my journey.”
WSU’s deep and talented defensive front impressed again, combining for six tackles for loss in the run game and three QB hits. Although Wisconsin’s ground-and-pound approach produced solid yardage totals, the Badgers couldn’t break off big runs and were mostly held in check by an energetic WSU defense. Wisconsin had the Cougs on their heels during a lengthy possession late in the third quarter, but the Badgers had to settle for a 43-yard field-goal attempt after three run stops near the line of scrimmage. The kick was shanked and fell short. The Cougars tightened up in the final period and outmuscled the favored opponents to claim their first road win over a ranked nonconference opponent since they topped No. 17 Colorado in 2003.
Of course, this one meant a bit more. The new-look WSU, playing with a first-year staff and freshly installed offensive system, introduced itself to the college football world while securing an exceptionally meaningful victory for both the Cougs’ program and its coach.
“I just think Cougs across the country are real proud of these guys,” Dickert said. “For me, I think the gravity of it will hit me at some moment. … I wouldn’t be sitting here today without the people that were in the stands.
“I’m proud to be here and to represent Washington State – that’s first and foremost. It’s a place I love, and I can’t wait to keep this thing going.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.