Opportunities to host big-name teams in nonconference games don’t come around often for Washington State. In fact, it’s been a quarter-century since it last happened.
Tucked away among the wheat fields and rolling hills of eastern Washington, Washington State has rarely been a destination for college football programs looking for top-tier nonconference opportunities.
But No. 19 Wisconsin was willing to take on the challenge of playing on a late summer afternoon on the Palouse on Saturday. In doing so, the Badgers will be the first nonconference Power Five opponent to visit Washington State in 25 years.
“The biggest part is there will be different distractions as we go throughout the week. And our No. 1 job as a coaching staff and players in particular is to narrow that focus,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said. “Everyone wants to be their best every Saturday and that doesn’t change just because a top-20 team is here in Pullman. We have the same standards of expectations of how we do everything.”
As much as Dickert might want to put blinders on his team, this week is a big deal for the Cougars. Illinois in the 1998 season opener was the last Power Five team to come to Pullman for a nonconference game. Mix in the latest round of college realignment that has left Washington State searching for a new home and the Cougars upsetting Wisconsin last year in Madison, and the potential is there for an amped environment.
“There’s — I don’t want to say a personal vendetta — but there’s definitely a lot of passion going into this game,” Wisconsin linebacker Maema Njongmeta said. “We’re excited to face them. We feel when you play a good opponent, it brings out the best in you.”
While Washington State’s 17-14 win at Wisconsin last year may remain fresh in the minds of the Badgers, it’s what both teams did in Week 1 that’s more relevant this time.
The Cougars (1-0) rolled in their opener, knocking off Colorado State 50-24 on the road behind a terrific performance from quarterback Cameron Ward. Ward threw for 451 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for another 40 yards and one TD.
Wisconsin (1-0) is supposed to look more like Washington State this season, bringing the “Air Raid” offense to Madison. But in the opening win against Buffalo, it looked more like Wisconsin of the past as running backs Chez Mellusi (157 yards) and Braelon Allen (141) had big games on the ground in the 38-17 victory.
“This is not that Wisconsin team that I know growing up,” said Dickert, a Wisconsin native. “The biggest thing is a new staff, they brought new schemes and systems that they’re still getting comfortable with. But the identity of Wisconsin football is they’re big, fast, tough, play aggressive, play with tons of effort.”
ON THE ROAD … AGAIN
Wisconsin hasn’t ventured away from home for very many nonconference games in the past decade. The trip to Pullman will be just the third true nonconference road game for Wisconsin in the past 10 years.
The Badgers won at South Florida to open the 2019 season and at BYU in 2017. Their last nonconference road loss came in 2013 when the Badgers lost 32-30 at Arizona State.
“Whatever you have going into the game, the team that you have is all you need,” Wisconsin QB Tanner Mordecai said. “The whole stadium is obviously rooting against you, but all you need is all the guys in the locker room, all the guys you traveled there with is all you need to win the game.”
While Washington State put up plenty of points in the opener, it would like to get more from its run game, particularly Wisconsin transfer Nakia Watson. The Cougars had just 90 yards rushing against Colorado State and Watson was held to 15 yards on seven carries.
Watson scored both touchdowns for Washington State in last year’s upset of the Badgers.
Washington State will honor former coach Mike Leach as part of Saturday’s home opener. Leach passed away in December but was at the helm of a major turnaround for the Cougars program in the previous decade. Leach took over at Washington State in 2012 and was 55-47 with six bowl game appearances before leaving to take over at Mississippi State after the 2019 season.