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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State rewind: Historic upset over Wisconsin keyed by creativity and playmaking

Washington State Cougars head coach Jake Dickert celebrates with defensive end Brennan Jackson (80) after they defeated the Wisconsin Badgers during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 31-22.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Cameron Ward had never seen a field rush, at least not one he was on the right side of, so his mind went blank when Washington State fans did the honors on Saturday night. The Cougars’ quarterback disappeared among a sea of crimson and white, fans descending on the country’s happiest football field, where WSU sprung an upset on No. 19 Wisconsin – but the hosts’ quarterback could only summon one thought.

“The only thing I could really think of is that pic we have of Gardner Minshew up there on the fifth floor,” Ward said, “when they rushed the field when they beat Oregon.”

Ward may not be Minshew – nobody is – but he may be guiding Washington State’s most important season since the mustached man took over college football in that magical fall of 2018.

That, of course, is because of the situation in which these Cougars find themselves. We all know the details: Washington State is one of the two remaining teams in the Pac-12. WSU remains without a conference home for 2024 and beyond, and while there only seem to be a couple options, the school’s future is hazy as ever.

That story followed the Cougars around all summer, from the moment the conference began to implode with the departures of Washington and Oregon in the beginning of August, and everything they’ve accomplished since has happened under this umbrella. Which is what makes this moment so special for WSU: These guys knocked off No. 19 Wisconsin. They did it for a second straight season. Now they’re ranked.

So meet No. 23 Washington State, the team that is no longer being coy about its intentions this season. The Cougars want to prove they belong in a power conference. To their head coach, they already have.

“We belong in the Power 5,” Jake Dickert said after Saturday’s game.

The Cougars demonstrated that last fall, upsetting the Badgers on the road. On Saturday night, they didn’t just illustrate it again. They grabbed the easel, found crimson and anthracite paint and splattered the colors across the canvas.

That effort started with Ward, who delivered a second-straight solid outing, following his 451-yard passing outing last week against Colorado State with something more modest: 20-for-32 passing for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He also registered 17 carries for 43 yards, with a long rush of 23 yards, becoming the Cougars’ leading rusher for the second game in a row.

That won’t exactly please Dickert, who still wants to get something more out of his team’s running game, but WSU produced on the ground when it had to. Running back Nakia Watson, himself a Wisconsin transfer, posted just 11 carries for 26 yards – but he used one of those yards to plunge into the end zone, pushing his team’s lead to the final margin in the fourth quarter.

While we’re on the topic, though, let’s examine the Cougars’ rushing numbers in their first two games of the season. They aren’t pretty. Last week, in a 50-24 season-opening romp over Colorado State, Ward led the team with 40 rushing yards on 13 carries. Backup quarterback John Mateer carded four carries for 16 yards.

WSU’s running backs, at least the ones who figure prominently in the team’s ground game, combined for 26 yards on 14 carries. In the Cougars’ win over the Badgers, those numbers jumped to 36 yards on 13 attempts.

“Part of it is our commitment to want to run the ball needs to take a step forward. I mean that,” Dickert said. “We’ll look at that, because I think we can. I know we can. I have trust in Nakia, Jaylen. If we can create space, they can make some things. We’ve just gotta make sure we’re committed to it and finding ways to make sure we’re staying ahead of the chains.”

Still, the only reason it hasn’t tanked WSU’s season is because of the team’s passing attack. Across these first two weeks, that has proven lethal – and creative.

Take Washington State’s first touchdown, a 4-yard pass from Ward to receiver Kyle Williams. Before the snap, Ward motioned Williams across the formation, so Wisconsin cornerback Alexander Smith followed him loosely, assuming Williams would finish on the other side of the formation.

WSU offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle made Smith pay for his impudence. Williams stuck his foot in the ground and changed directions, running right back the way he came, so when Ward snapped the ball and scanned the field, he saw a wide-open Williams, who could have crawled his way in for 6.

From there, Arbuckle grew even more creative. In the opening seconds of the second frame, he drew up a double-pass from Ward to wide receiver Lincoln Victor, a former high school quarterback.

“That arm never leaves me,” Victor said.

He proved it by lofting it downfield to tight end Cooper Mathers, who came down with the ball at the Wisconsin 1 -yard line, setting up the Cougars’ scoring play, a screen from Ward to Victor for a touchdown. Add Mateer’s 9-yard first-down run – a play that included Ward in the slot, coming in motion for a fake handoff – and it’s clear that Arbuckle saved his best stuff for the biggest game.

“I think it just shows the mindset of the offense,” Dickert said. “I thought (Ward) did a good job finding different ways. We had some success going empty a little bit. But it was gut-check time and Cam Ward, we put it in his hands, and he made the dang plays.”

So did the WSU defenders. The biggest plays came from edges Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, who teamed up for two strip-sacks and fumble recoveries. The one that will go down in program lore, though, has already gone viral on social media – where Stone sacks Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who fumbled and watched Jackson recover it in the end zone.

What better way to describe the impacts of Stone and Jackson? They aren’t just program cornerstones, guys who turned down chances to hit the transfer portal and find a new school that might pay them more in NIL money. After their outings on Saturday, they’re also the guys who helped deliver one of the most important wins in program history.

So many other Cougar defenders made it possible. Safety Jaden Hicks forced a fumble that turned into a touchdown, and on the next series, he followed a ferocious hit with a crucial pass breakup on third down. Fellow safety Sam Lockett led the team with 13 tackles, and linebackers Kyle Thornton and Devin Richardson combined for 14, forcing Wisconsin to become one-dimensional in the most important moments.

That became clear after Washington State delivered a message: Running backs Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi would not be changing this game like they changed their team’s win over Buffalo last week. On Saturday, they combined for just 69 yards on 19 carries.

So the Badgers had to lean on their Air Raid approach, and Mordecai did not always look the part. He completed 25 of 40 passes for one touchdown. That score drew Wisconsin within two points, Mordecai narrowly escaping a Stone rush and escaping for a touchdown pass, but the Cougars followed with a drive to put the game away, not break a tie, because they stuffed Wisconsin’s two-point attempt.

The guy to make that tackle? Jackson, of course. In a win this poetic, sometimes the smaller details are equally fitting.

“I think this is just another defining moment in WSU history,” Jackson said. “I think for us, it’s showing that it doesn’t matter what analysts say or what other people say about us. When you come to Pullman, you have to play a complete game, or else we’re gonna beat you.”