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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Three keys to win for Wisconsin, Washington State

The Washington State Cougars travel to Camp Randall on Saturday afternoon to face the Wisconsin Badgers. If either team hopes to remain undefeated to start the 2022 season, here are the key strategies each team should employ.

Washington State Cougars

1. Beat cornerbacks over the top

While Washington State’s offense struggled at times in Week 1 — with the team scoring just 24 points against an FCS team — they have a distinct advantage with their receivers against the Wisconsin Badgers’ secondary in Week 2: height.

The Badgers don’t have a single cornerback over six feet tall, except for freshman Al Ashford III who has yet to play. Meanwhile, both of the top wideouts, De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie for the Cougars, stand at 6’3”.

Ollie and Stribling were both productive in Week 1, with the former catching seven passes for 67 yards and the latter hauling in seven catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.

The Badgers’ defensive backs struggled over the top at times in Week 1, with starting cornerbacks Ricardo Hallman, Cedrick Dort and Jay Shaw all getting beat for deep gains.

To revitalize the offense, quarterback Cameron Ward should look to target his receivers over the top for big plays. 

2. Play through Nakia Watson 

Nakia Watson is a familiar name for Badgers fans, as the former Wisconsin running back transferred to Washington State following his sophomore season.

Now, after a sluggish season in 2021, Watson has started the year strong, rushing 18 times for 117 yards in Week 1.

While the Badgers have a stout defensive line and the Cougars’ offensive line is still a work in progress, Washington State should develop more offensive balance to take some of the pressure off transfer quarterback Cameron Ward.

Watson isn’t necessarily the fastest running back, which might make it difficult to run efficiently against this Badgers defense which flourishes more on inside-zone concepts than outside-zone. 

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However, given how the Illinois State Redbirds struggled to gain momentum offensively in Week 1 after top running back Cole Mueller suffered an injury, the Cougars should keep a balanced offensive attack to remain competitive in Saturday’s game.

3. Get pressure on Graham Mertz

The Cougars depend on their defense, which was how they escaped with a 24-17 victory in Week 1 against the Idaho Vandals.

The most prominent feature of that defense is their front seven, which accumulated a whopping seven sacks last weekend, with each sack coming from a different player.

Additionally, the defensive pressure opened up the avenues to turnovers, as the Cougars came away with two interceptions off of Idaho quarterback Gevani McCoy.

To put pressure on the Wisconsin offense, the Cougars should make it a focal point to attack the developing Badgers’ offensive line, placing more pressure on Graham Mertz, who seemed fairly comfortable in the pocket in Week 1 en route to a 14/16 passing performance.

If the Cougars can create more pressure on the quarterback, they could re-open those turnover lanes, keeping them in the game.

Wisconsin Badgers

1. Ground & Pound

The Badgers should continue to prioritize the running game in Week 2, especially after Idaho freshman Anthony Woods ran for 50 yards on nine carries in Week 1 against the Cougars' defense.

The Badgers saw sustained success in the running game during their Week 1 victory, rushing to the tune of 221 yards on 37 carries for an elite average of six yards per attempt.

While the Cougars' defense is likely better than the Redbirds’ defense, it’s also similar to the Badgers’ own defense. Both teams employ a 2-4-5 defensive formation, making reads for running backs potentially easier as the offense has practiced against similar schemes.

If the Badgers can successfully run the football, Graham Mertz can operate in a similar manner to Week 1 which can open up both avenues offensively, forcing defenses to be more patient.

2. Play-action passing 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Badgers should heed that advice in Week 2 after finding success using play-action last weekend. 

Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram’s system appears to be predicated on movement, which can open up the play-action attack, placing receivers and tight ends in open areas. In return, Graham Mertz’s job becomes easier.

Mertz doesn’t necessarily need to challenge the defense downfield, although that would expand the offense. However, the priority is making the correct reads and getting the ball out quickly, which is made easier with play-action.

Additionally, utilizing play-action should force the defense to be patient, as biting on the run-fakes would create open looks in the passing game, while sitting on rushing plays would provide the opportunity for extra yardage. 

3. Get to the quarterback

Cameron Ward’s Week 1 performance didn’t provide much excitement, despite the 228 passing yards and the three touchdowns. The Cougars’ transfer quarterback looked to run early at times while only averaging 5.8 yards per attempt. 

In Week 1, the Badgers sacked Redbirds quarterback Zach Annexstad four times, with Nick Herbig’s two sacks leading the charge. 

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard implemented a number of defensive packages, blitzing linebackers and defensive backs, which should carry over to Week 2. 

The defense should continue to put pressure on the quarterback, making it difficult for Ward to complete passes, while setting the edge well to force the former Incarnate Ward signal-caller to remain in the pocket.

With smaller cornerbacks that could get threatened vertically, the Badgers should make it a focus to get in the backfield early and often, forcing the backend to hold coverage for only a short period of time.

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