In one of the gutsiest performances you’ll ever see, the Washington State Cougars went on the road to face the 19th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers as 17-point underdogs and walked out of Camp Randall Stadium with an improbable 17-14 victory in front of nearly 80,000 stunned Wisconsinites — and a not insignificant number of ecstatic Coug fans who made the trip to Madison.
It was the kind of game you expect when you travel to play a Big Ten team: Physical, grinding ... and favoring the team that is the toughest both physically and mentally. On this day, that was Jake Dickert’s WSU Cougars, who moved to 2-0 and erased any questionable vibes that lingered after a closer-than-expected win over Idaho in the season opener.
Wisconsin finished the game with big statistical advantages, including outgaining the Cougars 401-253 and holding the ball for nearly 40 minutes. But the Badgers also turned the ball over three times and committed nine penalties to the Cougars’ two.
And really, it was the Cougars who came up with the biggest plays in the biggest moments, particularly on defense — despite being on the field for so long (Wisconsin ran 75 plays to WSU’s 50), the Cougars stood tall again and again and again.
Nothing was more emblematic of that than the final two drives of the game, in which the defense came up with two massive plays and the offense executed its 5-minute offense to perfection.
With WSU leading 17-14, Wisconsin took over on its own 35 with 13:01 to play. Moving down the field with plays that largely ranged between 4 and 6 yards, the Badgers drove to the WSU 9 yard line. Facing 3rd-and-6, Graham Mertz dropped back, but with Ron Stone Jr. pressuring him, his throw was deflected and then intercepted by Christian Mejia.
But — somehow, for the second time in the game — the interceptor fumbled the ball, and Wisconsin recovered at the 20. (However, the Badgers did get a 15-yard personal foul penalty for their troubles, one of 9 for 91 yards committed by Wisconsin.)
It’s the sort of play that might be expected to demoralize a defense that had absorbed so many Wisconsin body blows — at that point, they’d been on the field for 15 plays in that drive alone. And it looked like it just might, when Mertz found tight end Clay Cundiff for a big gain over the middle. But Edge rusher Quinn Roff chased down the play from behind, forcing a fumble of his own, which was subsequently recovered by Sam Lockett III with 5:14 to go.
From there, the Cougs gave Wisconsin a dose of their own medicine, as the Badgers wouldn’t touch the ball again.
A pair of completions to start the drive set up 3rd-and-2, which quarterback Cam Ward subsequently converted with a tough run on a keeper after an iffy snap forced him to tuck it and run. Then, offensive coordinator Eric Morris went into his bag of tricks with an RPO that led to a 18-yard gain by Lincoln Victor on the edge.
Now near midfield with under 3 minutes to play and just two timeouts for Wisconsin, the Cougs hit the ground to keep the clock running:
- 1st down: 4-yard run, Watson — timeout, Wisconsin, 2:17 to play
- 2nd down: 11-yard run, Watson
- 1st down: 2-yard run, Watson — timeout, Wisconsin, 1:38 to play (last timeout)
- 2nd down: 2-yard run, Ward
- 3rd down: No gain, Watson
- 4th down: Delay of game, 6 seconds to go in the game
- 4th down again: Snap, scramble, launch the ball up in the air downfield.
GAME OVER. PARTY ON.
While the result was unexpected heading in, it wasn’t shocking after the way WSU started the game.
The defense showed early and often that it had come to play, plugging the middle and swarming to the ball to stymie Wisconsin’s vaunted run game. Through the first quarter, the Badgers had gained just 41 yards on the ground over 14 carries — a massively encouraging result out of the gate.
However, defense is only one side of the ball, and the offense struggled mightily to carry its own weight. After gaining 43 yards on the first play via a screen pass to Renard Bell, the promising first drive fell flat in the end when Cam Ward failed to see a corner reading his eyes and peeling off his man to easily pick off a pass to the goal line. WSU would have just one other drive in the opening quarter — a three and out.
But the defense kept Wisconsin out of the end zone, hitting its high point early in the second quarter when it stopped the Badgers on fourth down around midfield — rather than run, Wisconsin tried to get tricky with a play-action boot to the flat, but the Cougs were all over it.
Finally, WSU took advantage.
First, Ward hit Donovan Ollie for a quick eight yards. Then, running tempo, Ward found tight end Billy Riviere streaking down the seam for a 38-yard gain on second down, and the Cougs were deep in Wisconsin territory. From the Badgers’ 7 yard line, Nakia Watson got the ball twice to punch it in, and the Cougs were up 7-0.
But, at that point, the defense had been on the field for more than 16 of the 21 minutes played. And it started to show, as Wisconsin answered back immediately with a six-play TD drive in which three of the plays went for more than 15 yards.
After trading punts, WSU took over on its own 4 yard line with 1:33 to play. Tied at 7, it seemed like the smart play was maybe to just run out the clock and head to the locker room so that the defense didn’t have to see the field again.
The Cougs seemed to try and split the difference, starting with a wide receiver screen. It gained nine yards — even though it looked like Lincoln Victor had picked up the first down — and the Cougs tried to push the tempo. It backfired. Ward was sacked for a loss, the next pass was incomplete, and WSU was punting the ball back to Wisconsin with a minute to play.
Five plays later — following a 40-yard gain on third and long (something that would become a theme in the game) — Wisconsin put it in the end zone on the WSU defense’s 47th snap of the game, and WSU trotted into the locker room stunned and down by a TD.
WSU had clearly shown it could hang with the Badgers. But could they sustain their level of play on defense with such a lopsided difference in time of possession?
The Cougs got the big play they needed to jumpstart the comeback effort thanks to a massive 73-yard kickoff return by Renard Bell:
WSU couldn’t take advantage of the incredible field position and get the ball in the end zone — a planned play on 4th-and-1 from Wisconsin’s 4 yard line was short circuited by a false start — but Dean Janikowski punched a FG through to pull the Cougs to within four points at 14-10.
After spending 47 plays and nearly 23 minutes on the field in the first half, the WSU defense was re-energized by the extended break and ensuing possession, forcing a three-and-out.
Jaylen Jenkins came on for his first two runs of the game, showing off his electric athleticism to gain 7 and then 13 yards. But after a pair of incompletions, Ward threw an ill-advised pass on 3rd-and-10 with pressure in his face, and the ball was picked off.
BUT! Lincoln Victor came up with a huge play, punching the ball out after the interception. Center Konnor Gomness recovered it, and WSU would not squander the opportunity. Facing pressure again, Ward found Watson in the flat, and the former Wisconsin running back did the rest of the work:
Suddenly, the Cougars were up 17-14, and the Crimson faithful in Madison were ecstatic. (If you look closely, you’ll see CougCenter writers Craig Powers, Emma Weightman, and Brian Anderson!)
Wisconsin tried to answer back, and the Badgers did move the ball into WSU territory, but penalties kept short-circuiting their advances. Eventually they settled for a 43-yard FG attempt at the end of an 11-play, 50-yard drive, but the kicker mis-hit the attempt and knuckled it short of the uprights, setting up the final, fourth quarter sequence that powered the Cougars to victory.
WSU now comes back home to face Colorado State next weekend at Gesa Field.