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Rapid-Fire Preview for WSU vs. Wisconsin

Washington State heads to Madison to take on the Wisconsin Badgers.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Illinois State at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Washington State Cougars head to Madison to face the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium (12:30 pm PT, FOX). Both teams are coming off wins over regional FCS opponents and dipping their toes in FBS waters for the first time this season.

Wisconsin’s win over Illinois State was slightly more convincing than WSU’s 24-17 victory over Idaho. The Badgers took down the Redbirds 38-0, a win befitting their No. 19 ranking in the AP poll.

There’s extra excitement around this game for WSU fans, as it is the first Power 5 non-conference matchup for the Cougs since a 2015 visit to Rutgers. I know I’m excited for the trip, evidenced by the fact that I am typing this at 5 am in the airport,* waiting to board a flight to Chicago. I expect many Wazzu fans are doing the same.

*I finished this piece on the plane (thank you $8 Alaska in-flight internet). It wasn’t an easy task because the person in front of me leaned back their seat. As a 6-foot-5 individual, I consider this to be one of the most selfish acts possible. The tiny amount of extra comfort you achieve by leaning back is outsized dramatically by the discomfort you are causing the person behind you, especially if that person is tall. I’m writing with my knees up against the seat and arms in a T-Rex position. Go Cougs.

The bar crawls and pregame tailgates will definitely be a highlight, but an actual game of football is the center of the weekend. Let’s get to the rapid-fire preview.

The Most Interesting Thing About Wisconsin

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Illinois State at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sophomore running back Braelon Allen is very good while possessing an extremely Gen Z first name. He logged 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns on 6.8 yards per carry as a freshman. He’s trending towards similarly impressive numbers this season, carrying 14 times for 148 yards and two scores against Illinois State.

Allen is the centerpiece of a run-heavy Badgers offense. Wisconsin ran the ball on 34 of 53 offensive plays in the opener (adjusted for sacks). The Badgers ran the ball 69% of the time last season. That won’t be nice for the Cougar defense if they can’t control the line of scrimmage.

Another Interesting Thing About Wisconsin

While the Badgers didn’t attempt many passes against Illinois State, they did struggle to protect the quarterback. The Redbirds tallied three sacks on just 19 Wisconsin dropbacks—that’s a high sack rate.

Is pass protection a weakness for Wisconsin? If so, WSU’s combination of talented edge rushers in RJ Stone and Brennan Jackson combined with a timely blitzing scheme could lead to some drive-killing plays for the Cougs.

Can WSU’s Offense Score Enough to Compete?

NCAA Football: Idaho at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The return of the Air Raid to the Palouse was about as impressive as any first game of the season in the Mike Leach era. The offense notoriously starts seasons slowly before gradually improving throughout the early schedule. Cam Ward and crew will need to show some marked improvement to move the ball on Wisconsin’s defense.

The good news? The two most significant areas of concern on the WSU offense—running back and offensive line—both looked better than expected against Idaho. Additionally, Eric Morris also showed some creativity, and it’s safe to assume he hasn’t dug too deep into the playbook just yet.

However, Ward will have to do better than the 5.6 yards per passing attempt he put up against Idaho if WSU’s offense is going to challenge the Badgers. More positive plays with his legs will help, too.

How WSU Can Win

The Cougs cannot afford the backbreaking and game-changing turnovers that made their opener much closer than it should have been. WSU needs to win the turnover battle.

Beyond that, sequencing of negative plays on defense will be critical to put Wisconsin behind schedule and take its offense out of its comfort zone (running the ball). When the Badgers do inevitably move the ball inside the 40, the Cougar defense needs to use its speed to capitalize on tighter windows and shut down drives.

Limiting Wisconsin to field goals and Big Ten-style punts in opponent territory can keep the game within striking distance. On the flipside, the WSU offense needs to take advantage of its trips into Badger territory—touchdowns not field goals. It would help to actually make the field goals if they are attempted, though.

Finally, the Cougs need to maximize opportunities. Fourth downs should be attempted. Anything that can potentially close the gap between the two teams should be considered. Surprise onside, anyone? Let’s get nuts.

How WSU Can Cover

The spread is big for this one—Wisconsin is favored by 17.5 on DraftKings with an over/under of 49. WSU’s path to covering likely lies with its defense. If the Cougs can slow down the Badger offense and limit it in scoring opportunities, possessions will be limited enough to keep the score down.

But Really, Who Makes Better Cheese?

Miami, Winn-Dixie, Wisconsin Cheese wheel and bread Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Wisconsin is world-renowned for its dairy production, specifically cheese and more specifically cheese curds. WSU and its alums are extremely proud of their cheese, particularly the flagship and unique Cougar Gold.

The WSU Pregame event will help settle the most important question of the day—there will be cheese from both schools offered for sampling. The WSU fans will no doubt be totally unbiased in their assessments (Cougar Gold is definitely better and you can’t convince me otherwise).

Bonus Soundtrack I Listened to While Writing This

I started my flight to the Midwest with the album Wisconsin Death Trip from Static-X, for obvious reasons. As I continued to write this preview, I went with one of my in-flight favorites: Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon. That album is pure vibes. Let’s pursue happiness this weekend, Cougs.