Wisconsin’s trip to Pullman did not go as planned, for the team or the fans in attendance. The Badgers lost 31-22 to the Washington State Cougars, dropping to 1-1 in Luke Fickell’s first season as head coach.
The team repeated 2022’s issue in the fourth quarter, while Cougars QB Cam Ward made all the plays necessary to lead his team to a win.
Luckily for the Badgers, they remain 0-0 in Big Ten play with the entire season ahead. There is time to fix the issues, of which there are many.
For those around the program and following from afar, the loss represents a ‘pump the brakes’ opportunity as Fickell installs his culture. Everybody would agree the team is not as far along as we expected entering the season.
Breaking down last night’s loss, here is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:
The Good: Wisconsin's passing game showed promise at times
If there was any bright spot from the brutal loss it was Wisconsin’s success through the air. QB Tanner Mordecai improved upon a rough Week 1 debut and finished the contest with 278 yards and one touchdown.
Consistency is still needed in this area. But Mordecai was able to spread the ball around to several of his talented playmakers as Wisconsin mounted its second-half comeback.
Will Pauling finished with five catches for 78 yards, Chimere Dike had 4-75, Bryson Green 2-54 and Skyler Bell 5-44 and a touchdown.
The tone after the loss is negative, and rightfully so. But at least we saw some of the “air” part of OC Phil Longo’s air raid.
The Bad: Wisconsin struggled with Washington State's athletic defensive front, again
Last year’s loss to the Cougars was defined by the offensive line struggling with Washington State’s athletic front. It was mostly seen in the team committing 11 penalties for 106 yards, many of those coming from the offensive line.
It was a similar story last night, but this time the struggles resulted in two first-half strip sacks, one of which ended in a Washington State touchdown.
Big guy touchdown! Ron Stone shows off a beautiful pass rush combo, getting to Mordecai, and then Brennan Jackson falls on the fumble for a score. pic.twitter.com/0SPcOqUbpU
— Ian Valentino (@NFLDraftStudy) September 10, 2023
Wisconsin’s Big Ten schedule will see many top defensive fronts line up opposite the Badgers’ offense. Given how they plan to pass the football, Wisconsin’s line will need to clean things up if it wants to avoid a repeat of last night.
The Ugly: Turnovers
Wisconsin’s turnovers were arguably the biggest part of the loss. Mordecai had the two aforementioned fumbles, while Chez Mellusi’s fourth-quarter fumble in essence ended the contest.
That’s now five turnovers through three games for the Badgers, four of which coming from the quarterback. That needs to change.
The Good: K Nathanial Vakos looks like a steal
The most dependable offseason addition by Luke Fickell and his staff might be kicker Nathanial Vakos. The Ohio transfer hit yesterday from 49 yards, 33 yards and 29 yards all in the first half, that after going 1/1 in the Week 1 win vs Buffalo.
The offense has been shaky and the defense isn’t close to dominant. We can also say one more thing about the Badgers after two weeks: they have a legitimate kicker.
The Bad: Red zone consistency
Wisconsin lost the game because of the three turnovers and a large halftime deficit.
The latter would not have been the case if the team converted red zone trips to touchdowns in the first half.
Wisconsin kicked field goals from the Washington State 31-yard-line (after getting to the 25), 16-yard-line and 11-yard-line. That led to only a 9-point first half despite moving the ball well.
This has been an issue with Phil Longo offenses in the past. It’s an area to watch as Big Ten play begins.
The Ugly: Officiating
There’s a reason I pushed this note down towards the bottom. Yesterday wasn’t a “the refs stole the game” type of outcome. Wisconsin lost that game, the refs didn’t take it.
That said, there were several highly-questionable calls in the second half. WSU QB Cam Ward was tackled in the end zone which should’ve been a game-tying safety (twice), and Chez Mellusi’s late fumble didn’t look like a fumble at all.
It was an ugly day from the officiating crew.
The Good: Hunter Wohler
Wisconsin’s defense was disappointing yesterday, allowing 332 total yards to Washington State including 255 from Ward.
A bright spot, however, was safety Hunter Wohler. He finished the contest with 13 tackles, one tackle-for-loss and a pass breakup.
The Bad: Containing Cam Ward
On the list of reasons why Wisconsin found a huge deficit in the first half is the Badgers’ inability to contain QB Cam Ward.
The pass rush was nowhere for a few quarters to start the game, while Ward was able to run around and find wide-open receivers down the field. I couldn’t help thinking about the impact of the losses of Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig during the game. The Badgers need to find a pass rush from somewhere.
The Ugly: The fourth quarter
The fourth-quarter drive chart is as ugly as it looked in real time:
Wisconsin 5 plays, 13 yards: Punt
WSU 3 plays, -8 yards (should’ve been a safety): Punt
Wisconsin 2 plays, 6 yards: Fumble
WSU: 10 plays, 57 yards: Touchdown
Wisconsin 7 plays, 29 yards: Turnover on downs
WSU 8 plays, 22 yards: End of game
Wisconsin totaled three drives, 14 plays, 48 yards, one punt, two turnovers and zero points. After a third-quarter blitz where the team looked to be in control.