The Washington State Cougars (2-0) defeated the No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers (1-1) by a 17-14 score Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.
Despite some consistencies, the visiting Cougars benefited from Wisconsin’s bevy of mistakes and pulled off a substantial Week 2 upset.
Much like a week ago, Wisconsin had a first-quarter interception at its own goal line. After beginning his day with a 43-yard completion, Cougar quarterback Cameron Ward forced a third and 10 throw from the 26 and gifted Wisconsin cornerback Max Lofy an easy takeaway.
Lofy, a key blocker on John Torchio’s pick-six last Saturday, had an impressive first half, collecting his first career interception and later making an open-field, third-down tackle which forced a punt. The sophomore made a good case for more early-season playing time in a still-fluid cornerback rotation.
Wisconsin’s ensuing drive ended with an interesting decision. Facing fourth and five from Washington State’s 33, the Badgers opted against going for it. Instead, Vito Calvaruso attempted a 51-yard field goal and missed wide right. Calvaruso’s only career field goal was his 28-yarder in Week 1, so having him kick from 51 yards out was a bold choice that didn’t pay off.
In the second quarter, the Cougars drove down and took a 7-0 lead on former Badger Nakia Watson’s two-yard touchdown run. Ward set up the score with an accurate 38-yard completion to tight end Billy Riviere III down the right sideline. It was Ward’s best throw in a half which saw him miss badly on a handful of short to mid-range attempts.
The Badgers wasted no time answering with points of their own. A possession lasting 3:05 ended with a 17-yard touchdown for Clay Cundiff. The tight end had minimal separation on a corner route, however, Graham Mertz delivered a beautiful, high-arching pass on a short list of his most impressive throws as a Badger.
Wisconsin added another seven points at the end of the half. Having used a timeout to get the ball back, the Badgers faced third and 10 at the 45. Mertz sailed a pass deep to receiver Keontez Lewis, placing it perfectly between two defenders for a 40-yard gain. Two plays later, Cundiff collected his second touchdown of the afternoon, sending Wisconsin to the locker room with a 14-7 lead.
Saturday’s first half was the most aggressive display of Mertz’s college career. Completing 13 of 22 attempts for 146 yards and the pair of touchdowns, he consistently pushed the ball downfield, challenged Washington State’s deep coverages and gave his receivers opportunities to make plays. The throws had varying success, but Mertz’s willingness to take such chances — and that he did so with considerable accuracy — was very encouraging.
Aided by a 73-yard kick return, the Cougars collected a field goal to open the second half. Washington State was going to attempt a fourth and one from Wisconsin’s four-yard line before a false start pushed them back and forced the kick.
On its next possession, Washington State faced a third and 10 at midfield. Pressured, Ward forced a throw to the left and Wisconsin cornerback Jay Shaw had an easy interception. Looking for extra yards on his return, though, the University of California, Los Angeles transfer fumbled and handed the ball right back to the Cougars — with a fresh set of downs.
Compounded with his mediocre-at-best outside coverage, Shaw has made a rough first impression to begin his Wisconsin career — in both games, this week with the fumble and last week with a personal foul — he’s kept opponent possessions alive with easily avoidable mistakes. It will be interesting to see if another cornerback, whether that’s Lofy or someone else, gets a look in the starting lineup before long.
The visitors took full advantage of Shaw’s blunder. A few plays later, after the Cougars had converted a fourth and one, Watson caught a dump-off to the left, spun away from a John Torchio tackle and had a clear path to the end zone, giving Washington State a 17-14 lead.
Wisconsin then drove into what looked like field goal range as the third quarter expired. With 10 MPH winds blowing north-to-south, the quarter change had Calvaruso kicking a 43-yard attempt toward the north end zone — into the wind. Maybe the TV timeout “iced” the Badger kicker, or maybe the wind made Calvaruso, who hit from 57 yards in pregame warmups, overthink the kick. Whatever it was, his knuckling attempt had no chance.
Lacking a reliable kicker could handicap the Badgers considerably if Calvaruso doesn’t right the ship. For one, it could force more fourth-down attempts in situations like the fourth and five on Wisconsin’s second possession. Additionally, and obviously, it keeps points off the scoreboard, which is glaring in a three-point defeat. The Badgers’ special teams errors — Calvaruso’s misses and the kick return leading to a Cougar field goal — were the chief culprit in Saturday’s loss.
Wisconsin’s next and final possession, beginning with 13:01 to go, was nothing short of disastrous. A lengthy drive had the Badgers with third and six from the Washington State nine. Mertz, hit while throwing, coughed up an interception to defensive tackle Christian Mejia.
Mejia, like Shaw in the third quarter, fumbled on his return, returning possession to Wisconsin. Such a bizarre sequence happens rarely, let alone twice in one half.
On that two-turnover play, Cundiff pushed Wisconsin back 15 yards with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Two plays later, he fumbled after a 24-yard reception. Although 5:14 remained, the Badgers wouldn’t touch the ball again.
That quickly, the junior tight end had gone from hero to goat, from first-half standout to second-half sinner. Not to say Cundiff is solely responsible for Saturday’s loss, though — the Badgers as a whole played an alarmingly sloppy game.
What went wrong?
The offensive line, without starting right tackle Riley Mahlman (leg), struggled in both pass and run blocking. Mertz, while sacked only once, was often scrambling away from trouble and on one of the game’s most pivotal downs — the fourth-quarter interception — was hit before the throw.
Wisconsin’s running game averaged four yards per carry en route to a 174-yard afternoon. Braelon Allen carried 21 times for 98 yards, Chez Mellusi 15 times for 44. Those numbers, while passable, don’t tell the whole story, as the backs faced stiff resistance at or behind the line of scrimmage and, in breaking tackles to produce positive plays, were worn down as the game went on.
Mertz, despite his uninspiring 81 yards (five-for-nine) in the second half, remains a positive takeaway from an afternoon of negatives for the Badgers. The same goes for Keontez Lewis, who caught two passes for 62 yards.
Although the 6’2” sophomore isn’t exceptionally fast, he has good releases and creates enough separation to draw Mertz’s attention downfield — not seen on Lewis’ stat line is the pass interference call he drew in the fourth quarter. A deep threat, if not a true weapon on the outside, would have a resounding impact on Bobby Engram’s offense. In Week 2, at least, Lewis looked the part.
The Badger defense, like Lewis, deserves a look beyond the box score. Cameron Ward passed for 200 yards with two interceptions, and the Cougars managed only 53 rushing yards on 22 carries.
Tackling was a hallmark of the 2021 Badgers but stuck out as an issue versus Washington State. Strong safety John Torchio missed multiple open-field tackles, including on the Watson receiving touchdown. While the senior won’t be perfect in his first stint as a starter, he must be better, especially while Hunter Wohler is sidelined by a leg injury.
Wisconsin’s ugly performance also included 11 penalties for 106 yards, many of which came in key situations.
Untimely penalties and special teams blunders tend to put coaches in the limelight. As such, head coach Paul Chryst and his staff absolutely deserve some of the blame for Saturday’s defeat. How the Badgers clean up Saturday’s mess next week and beyond will offer a better sense of the staff’s effectiveness and, possibly, whether Chryst’s job is at risk.
Whether Saturday’s loss was a fluke or a true cause for concern, it figures to drop the No. 19 Badgers from the AP’s Top 25 rankings.
Wisconsin will host New Mexico State next Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in a third consecutive home game to begin the season. While beating a vastly inferior team in the Aggies wouldn’t be enough to restore faith in the 2022 Badgers, a blowout victory would be a step in the right direction. After that, the schedule gets markedly more difficult with games against Ohio State, Michigan State and other respectable Big Ten opponents.
Stay tuned to The Daily Cardinal’s website and @cardinal_sports on Twitter for a preview of the New Mexico State game and additional coverage of Wisconsin and NCAA football.