Don’t take your eyes off …
The Washington State Cougars are not only facing a strong opponent. They will also be up against a hostile crowd in one of college football’s premier settings when they kick off against the 19th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
With a capacity of 80,321, Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the 50 largest sporting venues in the world.
It’s been nine years since the Cougars played in front of such a massive audience. WSU fell 31-24 at Auburn on Aug. 31, 2013, before 85,095 spectators at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“It’s gonna be exciting,” WSU receiver Renard Bell said. “To have a big stadium, a huge atmosphere, it’s going to be tremendously fun, and we’re going there to silence the entire crowd.”
The Cougars haven’t taken part in a nonconference game of this magnitude in years. Since 2010, they have met four Power Five nonconference foes in regular-season action. They lost at Oklahoma State in 2010, dropped a home game against Rutgers in 2014 and beat the Scarlet Knights on the road in 2015.
But WSU’s tilt with Wisconsin is shaping up to be a more memorable contest than any of those. Cougars coach Jake Dickert is returning to his home state for the most significant test so far in his young head-coaching career. Over 200 of his friends and family members – all of them lifelong Badgers fans – are switching allegiances and pulling for a major WSU upset victory.
“A little pressure is always good for you,” Bell added. “If you don’t feel pressure, then what are you doing? We’re going out there and playing for him, and playing for each other and trying to make something happen.”
If the Cougars can keep cool heads and pull off a stunner at Camp Randall, it’d certainly be one of the most celebrated wins in program history.
When Washington State has the ball …
Will the Cougs open up their playbook and demonstrate more of their offensive capabilities? WSU’s Air Raid endured two lengthy stretches of stagnation in the Cougars’ closer-than-anticipated win over FCS Idaho last weekend.
They stuck to short passes and leaned on their inside-running game, scoring just enough to hold off the pesky Vandals. Perhaps they were working out the kinks in their freshly installed system and waiting for transfer quarterback Cameron Ward to find his footing, or maybe they were saving some of their better stuff for a more important game.
In any case, the Cougars will need to show significant improvements on offense to have a chance against a Wisconsin team that returned several key pieces from a defense that was one of the nation’s elite units in 2021.
Bell, a veteran Cougar slotback, called his team’s Week 1 showing “sloppy” and promised that the opener was the Air Raid’s “lowest low, and it’ll never be like that again.” Dickert said the Cougs are “aggressively emphasizing” ball security after losing three fumbles against Idaho.
If Ward and his deep corps of pass-catchers can get on the same page and maintain their composure in an ear-splitting environment, they should find some holes in a Badger secondary that doesn’t have much experience playing against pass-happy opponents.
WSU’s offensive line performed well in Week 1, but that was to be expected against an undersized Idaho front. Saturday’s game will present an opportunity for the Cougs’ big men to prove themselves following an offseason of uncertainty surrounding the group. The Badgers boast a couple of All-American candidates in their defensive box: outside linebacker Nick Herbig and nose tackle Keeanu Benton.
“At the line of scrimmage is where Wisconsin has been tremendous for a long time,” Dickert said. “That’s their calling card. The challenge is to make sure we keep Cam upright. They are big and physical up front. (Herbig) is a tremendous speed rusher off the edge. We gotta find a way to contain him. We gotta be confident. We cannot get behind the chains.”
Keep an eye on Cougar tailback Nakia Watson, a first-year WSU starter who will surely be running with added motivation on Saturday. He played a considerable role off the bench for the Badgers in 2019 and 2020 before transferring to the Pullman school.
When Wisconsin has the ball …
The Badgers’ program has a long-standing reputation for producing NFL-caliber running backs and offensive linemen. Unsurprisingly, this year’s Wisconsin squad is headlined by a superstar running back and a few potential pros up front.
Sophomore tailback Braelon Allen, an All-American, amassed 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, averaging a stellar 6.8 yards per carry. He spearheaded an offense that rushed for over 200 yards per game last season, finishing in the top 20 nationally in that category. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder piled up 148 yards and two touchdowns – one of them from 96 yards out – in the Badgers’ shutout win over FCS Illinois State last weekend.
“If you tackle this guy high, it’s going to be like a BB off a tank,” Dickert said. “They gotta wrap up and squeeze, and get a leg and get an ankle and hang on for dear life. One guy doesn’t bring him down. … It’s all about aim points.”
In an average game, Wisconsin will dial up about 40 rushing plays and 20 passes. Backup running back Chez Mellusi (5-11, 205 pounds) will spell Allen and provide an extra speed element to Wisconsin’s ground game. Mellusi produced 815 yards and five touchdowns last year, averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Quarterback Graham Mertz is a third-year starter, but he’s more of a game-manager and isn’t often called upon to spark Wisconsin’s offense.
The Cougars’ defensive front will play at full strength on Saturday – first-team All-Pac-12 “edge” Ron Stone Jr. has returned to form after playing in a limited capacity during WSU’s opener and preseason because of an unspecified injury. The Cougs registered seven sacks last weekend and held Idaho to 1.8 yards per carry – an impressive opener, no doubt, but WSU’s defensive front will need its absolute best effort to contain the Badgers.
Colton’s pick: Wisconsin 34, Washington State 23
The Cougars are 17-point underdogs coming into their most significant nonconference game in recent history. Since 2010, WSU is 1-3 against nonconference Power Five opponents in regular-season matchups. Excluding bowl games, the Cougars haven’t faced a ranked nonleague opponent since a 2009 loss to No. 25 Notre Dame.
Wisconsin is a well-built program that has sustained its success for decades. WSU is building its foundation. Knocking off a ranked Big Ten team on the road in a hostile environment is not yet a realistic outcome for the Cougs.
Ultimately, the Badger defense limits WSU’s offense for a couple of extended stretches and the Cougar defense begins to tire out late.