The No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0) return to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. to host the unranked Washington State Cougars (1-0).
Fresh off a 24-17 victory at home versus Idaho, the Cougars bring a familiar face — and ball security concerns — into a daunting matchup with the Badgers.
Week 1 Recap
Wisconsin opened the new campaign with a 38-0 clobbering of the Illinois State Redbirds. In front of a packed house at Camp Randall Stadium, the Redbirds found success on an early drive before gifting safety John Torchio and the Badgers a 100-yard, score-opening pick-six.
From there, the Badgers dominated on the strength of Braelon Allen’s 148-yard, two-touchdown night and a promising 2022 debut for quarterback Graham Mertz.
However, Illinois State was the inept, Week 1 opponent it was supposed to be. This week, Washington State comes to Madison with a Power Five-quality roster and a win under its belt in the early season. The Badgers have plenty of room for improvement, namely in their defensive secondary, and this Saturday will be a great opportunity to build upon last week’s performance.
Washington State Offense vs. Wisconsin Defense
Under center for the Cougars is quarterback Cameron Ward, who’s beginning his first season in the FBS after two years at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. There he enjoyed two dominant seasons, accumulating 6,908 passing yards, 71 touchdowns and 14 interceptions across 19 games.
In 2020, Ward won the Jerry Rice Award as the most outstanding freshman in FCS football, and last year he was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award which goes to the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS.
Ward had an impressive start to his FBS career last Saturday, completing 25 of 40 attempts for 215 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, albeit with a lackluster QBR of 37.7. He rallied the Cougars back from an early 10-0 deficit and rattled off 24 straight points.
Washington State’s leading receiver in Week 1 was Donovan Ollie, who caught seven passes for 67 yards. The redshirt sophomore had 301 yards on 26 catches in 2021. De’Zhaun Stribling had seven catches for 51 yards and a touchdown, and he’s coming off a 44-catch, 471-yard and five-touchdown campaign.
Beyond their Week 1 production, another similarity between Ollie and Stribling is their height. Both standing at 6’3”, the receivers have a significant size advantage over Wisconsin’s starting cornerbacks. Wisconsin’s Jay Shaw (5’11”) and Ricardo Hallman (5’10”) were exposed a bit on downfield throws against Illinois State. So, Ward, who’s shown a knack for the deep ball throughout his collegiate career, figures to let it loose this Saturday.
The Cougars ran for 143 yards and 5.7 per attempt against Idaho, with former Badger running back Nakia Watson leading the charge. Watson totaled 522 yards and five touchdowns with Wisconsin in 2019 and 2021 before transferring in search of more playing time. The redshirt junior had 117 yards on 18 attempts last week, and he caught a pair of passes for 17 yards.
Watson did lose a fumble, though, as did Ollie and running back Jaylen Jenkins. Running the ball will be difficult enough against a stifling Badger front seven, but if the Cougars can’t trust their skill players to secure the football, it will be a long afternoon for Washington State.
Clearly, the Cougars’ best chance at offensive success is challenging Wisconsin’s secondary, which will be without starting free safety Hunter Wohler. Wohler, after leaving the Illinois State game with a leg injury and being seen with a boot and crutches afterwards, has reportedly been ruled out of this Saturday’s contest. In his absence, the inexperienced Preston Zachman, a former linebacker who recorded an interception in Week 1, should enter a starting role.
Wisconsin Offense vs. Washington State Defense
Washington State’s defense played fairly well against Idaho, holding the Vandals to 62 rushing yards on 34 attempts and 212 passing yards on 32 attempts. The Cougars intercepted quarterback Gevani McCoy twice and sacked him seven times.
Senior linebacker Daiyan Henley was outstanding with eight total tackles, a sack, three tackles for a loss and an interception.
Defensive back Armani Marsh, who made six tackles of his own, had an impressive sack where he bolted through the offensive line on a nickel blitz and blew up a 4th and 9 attempt. The 5’10” Marsh was one of the Cougars’ best defenders in 2021 with his 70 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and seven passes defensed.
Marsh’s Week 1 sack highlights the need for Wisconsin to be organized and aware with its pass protection. In the second quarter against Illinois State, Graham Mertz took a huge blindside hit from a blitzing nickel defender and made a brief visit to the injury tent. Braelon Allen tried to recover after initially sliding to the right in pass protection, but he couldn’t get close to the defender before he reached Mertz.
While Mertz will inevitably take hits throughout the season, preventable ones of last Saturday’s magnitude are detrimental to his long-term success. Postgame, the Wisconsin quarterback recalled the play and admitted he should have moved Allen’s block to the weak side after his pre-snap read.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Washington State call some creative blitzes, with Marsh or someone else, to test the Badgers’ pass protection and keep Mertz on his toes. Improved blocking will be a big step for Allen, too, both for Wisconsin and for his potential as an NFL player.
Wisconsin’s passing game should have a similar look this week. The Cougars yielded some long completions against Idaho, including ones of 42, 23 and 18 yards. Perhaps Mertz will work the ball downfield a bit to his starting receiver trio of Chimere Dike, Markus Allen and Skyler Bell. Look for Dean Engram to get some more action in Week 2, especially if Wisconsin enjoys another big lead in the second half.
Once again, Wisconsin has a home matchup it should win by a considerable margin. If the Badgers follow a similar offensive formula from a week ago while defensively tightening up some holes in the secondary, remaining staunch against the run and exploiting the Cougars’ ball security issues, they’ll likely improve to 2-0 on the season.
The Daily Cardinal will provide live updates during Saturday’s game on @cardinal_sports, and our recap will be available online shortly after the contest.