MADISON – All the positive vibes and momentum Paul Chryst’s team seemed to be building with its season-opening win vanished in a stunning loss Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
UW suffered three turnovers, committed 11 penalties for 106 yards, missed two field goals and struggled to move the ball consistently against a Washington State team that entered the day 17 ½-point underdogs.
The Cougars got enough big plays from quarterback Cameron Ward and tailback Nakia Watson to win 17-14 that stunned the crowd of 74,100.
UW (1-1) wraps up non-conference play next week against host New Mexico State, which took an 0-2 record into its game Saturday night at Texas-El Paso.
Washington State, coached by Kohler native Jake Dickert, improved to 2-0.
BOX SCORE: Washington State 14, Wisconsin 14
Ward completed 17 of 27 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown against a UW defense that used as many as six defensive backs and as few linemen as one in some formations.
Watson, who played two seasons at UW before transferring, caught the game-winning 31-yard touchdown pass and rushed 11 times for 34 yards and a touchdown against his former teammates.
Quarterback Graham Mertz completed 18 of 27 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
However, UW’s ground game was a hindrance for most of the day.
Braelon Allen managed 98 yards on 21 carries and Chez Mellusi finished with 44 yards on nine carries.
Wisconsin had a 14-7 halftime lead
Members of the UW defense knew before kickoff that they had to limit Washington State quarterbacks Ward and Watson.
Watson scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead and gained 11 yards on second down and 6 yards late in the game to pick up a crucial first down that helped the Cougars to the final 5. minutes 14 seconds.
That came when Clay Cuddiff, who had two touchdown catches, missed a tackle at the end of a 24-yard reception.
UW’s offense sputtered on its first three drives, producing just 100 yards on 33 plays (3.3-yard average), and the Badgers faced a 7-0 deficit with 9:10 left in the first half.
Bobby Engram’s drive took over at the UW 35 after Washington State’s Colton Theaker drove the opening kickoff out of bounds.
The Badgers took advantage of field position by driving 65 yards in just six plays and 3:05 for a touchdown to forge a 7-7 tie.
Mertz capped the drive with a great pass to Cuddiff for a 17-yard score with 6:05 left in the half.
UW got the ball back to its own 38 after Washington State went three-and-out, but a personal foul on left tackle Jack Nelson (hands to face) ultimately left the offense in a first-and-25 hole.
The Badgers finally punted and Andy Vujnovich and Dean Engram combined to pin the Cougars at their 4 as Engram made a clean catch on the punt.
With just 1:33 on the clock, Washington State remained aggressive offensively and attempted to go through on all three downs.
After a 9-yard gain on first down, Ward was sacked for a 6-yard loss from the 7 by safety Kamo’i Latu to set up third-and-7 with 1:09 left.
Cornerback Cedrick Dort then broke up a short pass on third down and the Cougars lined up for a punt with 1:06 left and UW with a timeout remaining.
The Badgers drove 45 yards for the scrimmage in five plays, with Mertz making two huge catches.
He threw a strike to Keontez Lewis for 40 yards at the Washington State 5 on third-and-10. That left Mertz 5-for-8 for 79 yards, with five conversions, on third down.
A first-down incomplete and delay of game penalty left UW facing second-and-10, but Mertz gave UW the lead with a 10-yard pass to Cundiff with 20 seconds left in the half.
Defensive end Brennan Jackson unblocked the left side of the UW formation, but Mertz didn’t panic and threw a strike to Cundiff to help UW take a 14-7 halftime lead.
UW’s offense on its final two possessions of the half had 110 yards and two scores on 11 plays, an average of 10.0 yards per play.
Washington State’s special teams play very well in the third quarter
Washington State’s special teams created the first big play of the second half when Renard Bell returned Jack Van Dyke’s kickoff 73 yards to the UW 27.
Backup wide receiver Haakon Anderson, a walk-on from Verona High School, may have saved a touchdown by keeping the shutout along Washington State’s sideline. This allowed the chase to overtake and shoot down Bell.
The Cougars finally settled on a 26-yard field goal by Dean Janikowski to pull within 14-10 with 11:20 left in the third quarter.
UW went three-and-out, but the Cougars got the ball back to their own 27 after a 53-yard punt by Vujnovich and a terrific tackle by Latu, which led to a 2-yard punt return.
The Cougars faced third-and-10 from their 47 when they caught a break that kept a drive alive that eventually resulted in a touchdown.
Latu forced Ward into an errant shot, which was blocked by cornerback Jay Shaw. However, Shaw fumbled and the Cougars recovered at the UW 49.
Six plays later, Ward hit Watson in the flat and the former UW tailback got away from Latu at the 30 and sailed clear into the end zone to give the Cougars a 17-14 lead with 5:12 left in the quarter.
UW overcame calls against right tackle Logan Brown and center Joe Tippman to drive to the Washington State 31, but the drive stalled at the 25 and Vito Calvaruso, who missed a 51-yard field goal in the first half, missed from the 43 yards on his first play in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars took over at their own 25, but went three-and-out, with Nick Herbig recording a huge sack on third-and-5.
UW took over at its 35 after the punt with 13:01 left.
The Badgers overcame penalties and eventually got a first down at the Cougars’ 10 at the 35 with 6:42 left.
Mertz hit Cuddiff 24 yards to the 12, but Cuddiff fumbled after the hit from behind and the Cougars recovered at their own 12 with 5:14 left.
With Ward and Watson making big plays, the Cougars ran out the clock to give Dickert a huge homecoming gift.
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This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin football team falls to Jeff Dickert, Washington State