Preview: (19) Wisconsin vs Washington State
The teams: The No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0) vs the Washington State Cougars (1-0)
The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: FOX with Jason Benetti and Brock Huard on the call, and Allison Williams on the sideline
The last time: Quarterback Tyler Donovan threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns as Wisconsin beat Washington State 42-21 in 2007.
The series: Wisconsin 2-0
The line: Wisconsin -17
OL Tanor Bortolini (leg)
WR Stephan Bracey (leg)
TE Cam Large (leg)
ILB Spencer Lytle (leg)
DE Isaac Townsend (leg)
OLB Aaron Witt (leg)
S Hunter Wohler (leg)
QB Chase Wolf (leg)
OL Riley Mahlman (leg)
CB Alexander Smith (hamstring)
CB Justin Clark (hamstring)
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) A step up
After facing an FCS opponent last week, the competition steps up for Wisconsin. Though Washington State struggled to handle Idaho, also an FCS team, in its opener, the Badgers will be tested much more by the Cougars than they were by Illinois State. Will the positives seen in that 38-0 win carry over against a more talented group or will some of the concerns from Week 1 resurface or be accentuated?
2) Welcome back
In the first of two matchups with former Wisconsin running backs this season, the Badgers will welcome back Nakia Watson to Madison. A four-star recruit in the 2018 class, Watson ran for 522 yards and five touchdowns in two years before transferring to Washington State after the 2020 season. After running for 114 yards last season, the powerful Watson had 117 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry in the Cougars win last week.
“To me, I think he is a little lighter,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said this week. “I think he is a little more explosive than he was here. He did a great job last week. He lost the one fumble, but outside of that, he runs the ball hard.
“It is not necessarily an overly complicated run game. For them to have a guy like that, who can kind of bring his own blocker at times, is really big in that scheme. I thought he did a great job of running the football for them and obviously put up a good amount of yards there in Week 1. We got to bring it when we tackle him because he is a strong, powerful guy that will be highly motivated coming into this game.”
3) Protecting Mertz
Quarterback Graham Mertz was barely touched last week and it led to his best statistical effort since his starting debut in 2020. The junior threw from a clean pocket much of the night and never really got rattled, something that couldn’t be said last season in the games where he struggled. But the Cougars figure to present a stiffer challenge after racking up seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss against Idaho.
One key injury to watch for the Badgers is right tackle Riley Mahlman. He left last week’s game early with a leg injury. If he is not able to go, it would be junior Logan Brown in his place. A solid run blocker, Brown had his struggles in pass protection during the spring.
4) Slowing Cam Ward
Among the more prized transfers this past offseason was Incarnate Word quarterback Cam Ward. He threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns last season before choosing to sign with Washington State, which had just hired Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris as its new offensive coordinator.
Early returns were mixed for Ward in his first game. He threw three touchdowns but averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt and was sacked three times. However, it’s clear Ward has a big-time arm and the ability to extend the play. With the Badgers possibly missing cornerbacks Alexander Smith and Justin Clark, along with safety Hunter Wohler, the Cougars have to be thinking about being able to have some success through the air with wide receivers De’Zhaun Stribling, Donovan Ollie and Renard Bell.
5) Consistency in the run game
The Badgers got big plays in the running game last week with Braelon Allen’s record-breaking 96-yard scamper, along with a 16-yard run from Julius Davis and 15-yarder from Chez Mellusi. But the consistency wasn’t there. Outside of those three runs Wisconsin averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on its 34 other attempts.
Some early struggles should be expected with an offensive line that hasn’t played a ton of football together. Timing is critical and the only way to truly get that is in game action. Facing a Washington State defense that held Idaho’s running backs to 83 yards should give us a little clearer picture where the group stands under new line coach Bob Bostad.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
— Wisconsin is 2-3 under coach Paul Chryst when facing a Power 5 or Independent team in non-conference regular season play. The team beat LSU in 2016 and BYU in 2017, while losing to Alabama in 2015, BYU in 2018 and Notre Dame in 2021.
— Wisconsin had a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver against Illinois State last week in Allen and Chimere Dike, respectively. It was the first time in 32 games the Badgers had managed to do that.
— Allen is averaging 7.1 yards per carry in his career, which would rank second all-time behind Melvin Gordon’s 7.8 yards per carry.
— Washington State is 4-2 under coach Jake Dickert since he took over for Nick Rolovich in the middle of last year. A native of Wisconsin, Dickert played college football at UW-Stevens Point.
— Washington State is 18-33 all-time against Big Ten schools. The Cougars only win over a Big Ten team in the last 20 seasons came in 2015 against a Rutgers squad that went 1-7 in conference play.
Zach Heilprin’s (1-0, 1-0 ATS) prediction: Wisconsin 31, Washington State 16
Ebo’s (1-0, 1-0 ATS) prediction: Wisconsin 34, Washington State 14
Nelson Raisbeck’s (1-0, 0-1 ATS) prediction: Wisconsin 38, Washington State 21
RJ Brachman’s (1-0, 0-1 ATS) prediction: Wisconsin 35, Washington State 17
Ben Kenney’s (1-0, 0-1 ATS) prediction: Wisconsin 31, Washington State 17