MADISON, Wis. – It was a significant win in the history of Washington State’s program, a defining win for first-year Cougars coach and Wisconsin native Jake Dickert, a signature win for his “New Wazzu,” and a special win for a “small-market” Power Five team on a big-time stage against a high-profile opponent.
Underdogs from the Pac-12 and afterthoughts in this offseason’s conference realignment discussions, the Cougars marched into America’s Heartland and outmuscled a Big Ten power in front of 80,000 attendees and a national television audience. Saturday’s game marked an unforgettable occasion for WSU, which stunned the Wisconsin Badgers 17-14 in a wild game at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Cougars, playing under a first-year staff, moved to 2-0 while introducing themselves to the college football world. Competing in their most challenging nonconference game in years, the Cougars handed Wisconsin just its third nonconference home loss in two decades.
“This team, since January, has trusted the process and knew it was going to be different,” Dickert said during an emotional postgame news conference after he guided a historic win for his program with hundreds of his loved ones in attendance.
“It’s the ‘New Wazzu,’ it’s what we’ve been talking about and what we’ve been working for, to get to this moment. We still have so much out there for us. I’m so proud of that locker room and where they’re at, the trust they have in the coaching staff. Most importantly, they played for each other, and that’s how you win big, tough football games on the road against a very good opponent.”
WSU didn’t crack the Associated Press Top 25, but the Cougars received 30 votes in the Week 3 poll released Sunday afternoon. They are the No. 10 team in the “receiving votes” category. Wisconsin dropped from the rankings.
The Cougars will close the nonconference portion of their schedule next weekend in Pullman against Colorado State of the Mountain West.
First, let’s look back on WSU’s most impressive nonconference victory in recent history.
WSU paced by resilient defensive effort
On paper, it might not look like such a stellar performance from the Cougar defense. Wisconsin accumulated over 400 yards. The Badgers averaged a solid 5.3 yards per play. They converted 23 first downs on 75 plays. Wisconsin rushed for 174 yards on 44 attempts – All-American running back Braelon Allen picked up 4.7 yards per carry and churned out nearly 100 yards – and controlled time of possession , holding the ball for 38 minutes.
But don’t be fooled by the numbers. WSU’s defense was terrific .
The Cougars play a resilient, opportunistic brand of defense that doesn’t always translate to the stat sheet. They did so last year under Dickert, who served as coordinator then, and their identity hasn’t changed this season under first-year DC Brian Ward.
“It all leads up to moments like these,” WSU edge Ron Stone Jr. said of the defense’s spirited style of play. “Ultimately, it’s just about strain and bend but don’t break, and that’s what we did.”
The unit gave up ground, but it seldom caved against the Badgers and their formidable ground game. WSU’s defenders swarmed to the ball and prevented Badger ball-carriers from reaching the second level. Paced by a defensive front among the Pac-12’s best, WSU logged six tackles for loss in the run game. Wisconsin had just four rushing plays go for more than 10 yards (with a long of 17 yards).
Although the Badgers managed to plug away downfield and register respectable yardage totals, they had trouble finishing drives and were often thwarted when they neared the Cougars end zone.
Wisconsin was held scoreless in the second half despite two red-zone appearances.
“We played a gritty 60 minutes,” Dickert said. “We played a gritty second half. That’s a team out there (Wisconsin) that is going to win a lot of football games, and they are going to do it by wearing people out and doing it in their style.”
WSU’s defense was undeniably gassed – considering the major disparity in time of possession – but held firm and made timely plays when Wisconsin entered Cougars territory on several grueling possessions that featured plenty of physical runs between the tackles.
The Badgers came away empty on each of their four longest drives – spanning 12, 13, 11 and 16 plays. A fourth-down rollout pass was blown up. WSU’s defense buckled down in the red zone and forced two long-range field-goal attempts – one late in the first quarter and another early in the fourth – both of which missed the mark. On Wisconsin’s final drive, the Cougars tallied two takeaways – you read that right.
First, Stone hammered Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz as he threw, causing the ball to dangle in the air. Defensive tackle Christian Mejia snatched it, but tried to get too cute on the return and coughed up possession. Two plays later, edge rusher Quinn Roff tracked down Badger tight end Clay Cundiff after an intermediate reception and punched the ball free. Safety Sam Lockett III, a first-year Cougar from Spokane, was there to collect the red-zone turnover, which effectively sealed the result.
“That fourth quarter was hard,” Dickert said. “They started to lean on us, they started to do a lot of ‘Wisconsin things’ – just churning some things out.
“We kept leaning on each other. It takes one play to keep this thing moving. I thought we did a good job eliminating the big, explosive plays and make them go the long, hard way. Our guys kept fighting.”
WSU has forced five turnovers already this season. The Cougarhad a knack for knocking balls free last year, finishing the 2021 campaign tied for fifth nationally in takeaways with 29.
The Cougars performed with commendable effort late in the game while playing shorthanded. Starting strong safety Jordan Lee was shaken up on the last play of the third quarter. He walked gingerly off the field and never returned to the lineup. Middle linebacker Travion Brown, a co-starter, sustained an injury during Wisconsin’s final drive and was helped to the sideline. WSU played the entire second half without its top coverage corner in Derrick Langford Jr., who came up limping after an awkward collision midway through the second quarter and emerged from the locker room after halftime with a walking boot on his left foot.
With Langford out of the lineup, the Cougars had to rely on backups Chris Jackson and Cam Lampkin – who made his WSU debut – to hold down the No. 2 cornerback spot. Mertz identified mismatches between WSU’s reserve corners and the Badgers’ starting receivers, and completed four downfield passes in the second quarter. The Cougars secondary tightened up in the second half, conceding only 81 passing yards.
‘Coug Raid’ shows versatility on final series
WSU’s offense struggled to sustain possessions against a stalwart Wisconsin defense that ranked among the best in the country last season in most statistical categories.
“We knew it was gonna be a dogfight,” running back Nakia Watson said.
The Cougars went three-and-out on four of their 10 series. They found the occasional hole in the Badgers’ secondary, hitting a couple of big passing plays on two of their three scoring drives – one of those drives was only made possible because of a special-teams highlight.
A 38-yard rainbow pass from quarterback Cameron Ward to tight end Billy Riviere set up a short touchdown in the second quarter, and a check-down toss from Ward to Watson went for a 31-yard TD in the third quarter – the Cougars were fortunate to get that one. Ward had thrown an interception on the possession, but slotback Lincoln Victor made an incredible effort and stripped the ball away from a Badger defensive back, giving WSU a fresh set of downs. (Side note: We couldn’t track down the last college game that included two interception-fumble plays).
Slot receiver Renard Bell opened the second half with a 73-yard kick return. That drive ended in a field goal.
Against a program that has long been known as a defensive heavyweight, the Cougar Air Raid was mostly quiet.
Wisconsin’s defensive front closed running lanes. Ward felt pressure in the pocket and had to settle for short passes toward the sidelines.
Before its final drive, WSU’s offense had been on the field for just 17 minutes, had barely managed 200 total yards on just 40 plays, and had converted only seven first downs.
The Cougars saved their longest and most efficient drive for last.
After their tenacious defense made a clutch red-zone takeaway with 5:14 remaining in the game, WSU’s offense was able to milk the rest of the clock and clinch the win.
Dickert often speaks about the versatility of his team’s new “Coug Raid.” The system sometimes operates at a quick tempo. But the Cougs can slow the pace if need be. They lean on the aerial attack when necessary and are confident in their ability to grind out yardage on the ground.
“We brought in this offense to do what we did at the end of this game,” Dickert said.
The Cougars managed the clock perfectly, holding on to the ball for 10 plays and gaining 43 yards to deny the Badger offense another opportunity.
Ward danced around in the backfield on the final play, a fourth down, wasting the last six seconds of the clock before tossing the ball safely out of bounds.
Excluding that throwaway, Ward passed 3 of 3 for 26 yards on the possession, which began from his own 12-yard line. He fired quick and safe passes to get his team out of a dangerous position. Ward rushed for a 3-yard gain on a third-and-2 early in the drive, then connected with Victor on the far sideline for an 18-yard catch-and-run with just over three minutes left on the clock. After that, the Cougars stuck to the rushing game, and did so effectively.
Watson produced 17 hard-earned yards on four carries during that series. The former Wisconsin backup finished the game with 33 rushing yards on 10 attempts with two TDs from scrimmage – his first two scores in a Cougars uniform. Last weekend, he had piled up a career-high 117 yards but hadn’t found the end zone and lost a fumble in the fourth quarter of WSU’s close win over Idaho.
“Nakia was as advertised,” Dickert said. “(RBs coach Mark) Atuaia was on his tail all week after his (Week 1) performance, and he responded.
“He kept churning. I’m so proud of Nakia. He came into this environment, he knows a lot of people here and he represented himself and all the work he puts in. That’s the kinda thunder and lightning we need with Nakia, and you saw (backup Jaylen Jenkins) come in and hit some explosive plays. You gotta be able to run the football to win games and that’s going to open up a lot of things.”
Jenkins, a true freshman who is smaller but faster than Watson, had his turn in the third quarter and used his speed to burst through a few seams in the line, gaining 27 yards on six carries.
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