MADISON – All the positive vibes and momentum Paul Chryst’s team appeared to generate with its season-opening victory vanished in a stunning loss Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
UW suffered three turnovers, the last a fumble by tight end Clay Cundiff at the Washington State 12 late in the final quarter; 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.
Washington State got enough big plays from quarterback Cameron Ward and tailback Nakia Watson to grind out a 17-14 victory that stunned the crowd of 74,100.
UW (1-1) concludes nonconference play next week against visiting New Mexico State, which took a 0-2 record into its game Saturday night at Texas-El Paso.
“A game like this, everyone owns it,” Chryst said. “Starting with myself and each and every person in that locker room …
“This has got to be one that burns. Stings to where it drives you to get better.”
There wasn’t any pain for Washington State. The Cougars, coached by Kohler native Jake Dickert, improved to 2-0.
BOX SCORE:Washington State 17, Wisconsin 14
Ward completed 17 of 28 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 certain schemes.
“I think he is a good quarterback,” Chryst said. “We thought that going in and still think that today.”
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.
Safety John Torchio pointed to too many missed tackles, including some that he missed, as an issue.
“I come off as calm,” he said. “But trust me, this stings a lot. This sucks. This is a terrible feeling. Obviously we have to push forward and focus on our next opponent.
“But you feel this for the rest of the season. You feel this hurt. Losing at home.”
Quarterback Graham Mertz completed 18 of 27 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
However, UW’s ground game was stymied for most of the day.
Braelon Allen managed 98 yards on 21 carries and Chez Mellusi finished with 44 yards on nine carries.
And the penalties were brutal.
The offensive line was responsible for five for 56 yards. Tight end Hayden Rucci was called for a block in the back on a 26-yard run by Skyler Bell. Cundiff was assessed a personal foul (15 yards) for pulling a player off a pile at the end of a play.
“You’ve got to clean it up,” Mertz said. “We learned that today.”
The penalty by Cundiff, after a Washington State defender intercepted a pass by Mertz but almost immediately lost the ball on a fumble, moved the ball from the Washington State 20 to the 35. Two plays later, Cundiff fumbled after a 24-yard gain to the 12.
“I’ve just got to be careful in the middle of the field,” said Cundiff, who had touchdown catches of 17 and 10 yards.
Members of UW’s defense knew before kickoff they had to contain 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 a second and 6 late in the game to pick up a crucial first down that helped the Cougars run out the final 5 minutes 14 seconds.
He broke the attempted tackle of safety Kamo’i Latu at the UW 30 on his 31-yard touchdown reception.
“I’ve got to make the tackle,” Latu said.
Wisconsin’s offense slow to start but Graham Mertz’s TD to Clay Cundiff gets Badgers on board
UW’s offense sputtered on its first three series, generating 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 unit took over at the UW 35 after Washington State’s Colton Theaker drove the kickoff out of bounds.
The Badgers took advantage of the 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 gorgeous pass to Cundiff for a 17-yard score with 6:05 left in the half.
UW got the ball back at its 38 back after Washington State went three and out but a personal foul on left tackle Jack Nelson (hands to the face) eventually left the offense in a first-and-25 hole.
The Badgers eventually punted and Andy Vujnovich and Dean Engram combined to pin the Cougars at their 4, as Engram caught the punt cleanly.
With just 1:33 on the clock, Washington State remained aggressive offensively and tried to pass on all three downs.
After a 9-yard gain on first down, Ward was sacked for a 6-yard loss to the 7 by 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 to punt with 1:06 left and UW with one timeout left.
Wisconsin goes into halftime on a high note with another Cundiff touchdown
The Badgers drove 45 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in five plays, with Mertz hitting two huge throws.
He threw a strike to Keontez Lewis for 40 yards to the Washington State 5 on third and 10. That left Mertz at 5 for 8 for 79 yards, with five conversions, on third down.
A first-down incompletion 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 came unblocked off 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.
Washington State’s special teams get big play in third quarter
Washington State’s special teams generated the first big play of the second half when Renard Bell returned Jack Van Dyke’s kickoff 73 yards to the UW 27.
The Cougars eventually settled for 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 at their 27 after a 53-yard punt by Vujnovich and a terrific tackle by Latu, which resulted in a return of minus-2 yards.
The Cougars faced third and 10 from their 47 when they caught a break that kept alive a drive that eventually resulted in a touchdown.
Latu pressured Ward into an errant throw, which was intercepted by cornerback Jay Shaw. Shaw fumbled, however, and the Cougars recovered at the UW 49.
Washington State’s Cameron Ward and Nakia Watson take advantage of Wisconsin turnover
Six plays later, Ward hit Watson in the flat and the former UW tailback spun away from Latu at the 30 and had clear sailing into the end zone to help the Cougars take a 17-14 lead with 5:12 left in the quarter.
UW then overcame holding 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 from 51 yards in the first half, missed from 43 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Cougars took over at their 25 but went three and out, with outside linebacker 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 more penalties and eventually faced first at 10 at the Cougars’ 35 with 6:42 left.
Cundiff found an opening in the Washington State zone and Mertz threw an accurate pass but Cundiff didn’t protect the ball.
With Ward and Watson making big plays, the Cougars ran out the final 5:14 to give Dickert a huge homecoming present.
“I didn’t even want to take my pads off,” Herbig said when asked about the loss. “It sucks. Honestly, I don’t want to be here right now.
“But it is what it is. We lost. They were the better team today. We’ve got to take it to the chin today and move on.”
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