Overmatched on D, but ground attack solid

WASHINGTON STATE, clicking on all offensive cylinders early, jumped to a 14-7 lead at seventh-ranked Wisconsin on Saturday but couldn't keep up with the bigger and more experienced Badgers, and fell 42-21. While WSU had reasons to cheer, Wisconsin's domination was complete. Nothing illustrated the outcome better than a comparison of third-down conversions, penalties and field position.

Against a crimson defense that forced just three Wisconsin punts and surrendered nearly 500 total yards, the Badgers converted a whopping 11 of 15 third-down plays.

The Cougars converted just 6 of 14. The long-time WSU bugaboo -- penalties -- reared its ugly head, both in quantity and impact, in the first half. The Cougs were flagged seven times for 61 yards in the period to the Badgers' one for 5. And then there was field position. The Cougars' curious, two-year kickoff habit of booting flairs to the 20 helped give the Badgers an average starting place of their own 40.

As color commentator Jim Walden said afterward, Wisconsin had a semi-modest 10 offensive possessions but scored TDs on six of them. "Wisconsin was playing on only 60 percent of the field. That kills ya ... The Cougars were starting out at the 20, 19, 22 ..."

Eight of Wisconsin's 10 possessions started between their 34 and 46. Conversely, only two of the Cougars' 11 series started beyond their own 26.

It wasn't all bad news for the Cougs, though. The rushing attack, considered a vulnerability coming in, was downright good. With Dwight Tardy carrying 21 times for 96 yards, the Cougars collected 156 ground hashes. WSU's final TD was produced by a nine-play drive that featured six rushes -- all by Tardy.

"I thought they (the offensive line) played darned well," head coach Bill Doba told the Cougar Sports Radio Network. "All in all, it was an outstanding performance." He noted that the quarterback Alex Brink passed the ball 27 times and was sacked just once. "If we can have that type of ratio all year we'll be just fine."

Brink said the one sack, late in the game, was less about his protection than him not being able to find a receiver. Brink completed 17 of 27 passes for 171 yards, one TD and no interceptions. He also used his feet, scrambling for 31 yards on a first quarter play to set up the Cougars' second TD -- a short run by Chris Ivory -- that put WSU ahead 14-7.

Doba, who reassumed control of the Cougar defense this season, quipped that "the new defensive coordinator got his baptism today." Wisconsin receiver Luke Swan, who scored two TDs and collected 170 of quarterback Tyler Donovan's 282 air yards, torched a Cougar secondary that featured three starters playing their first-ever Division IA game.

Doba said the aim was keep the defensive schemes simple enough for the new guys to digest but complex enough to keep opponents off balance. He said there were several critical occasions where the defense was confused.

It wasn't all the secondary's fault. The defensive line put little pressure on Donovan most of the day. Wisconsin's starting O-linemen average 6-foot-6 and 314 pounds.

The Cougars, down 28-14 at halftime, narrowed the score to 28-21 with 4:32 left in the third quarter when Brink passed 7 yards to Brandon Gibson. Gibson, who practiced just twice in the last two weeks following a knee injury, caught six balls for 82 yards to lead all Cougar pass catchers.

DOBA SAID the Cougars' fake punt by Darryl Blunt late in the game, a long pass intercepted by Wisconsin, was undone by a high center snap to Blunt that ruined the timing of the play. Had it gone off as designed, Doba said, the Cougars were looking not just at a first down but a touchdown.

Another critical turn in the momentum occurred just before halftime when the Cougars took possession with just less than two minutes left but ran less than a minute off the clock. The Cougs, Doba said, were in their two-minute offense, and actually managed a first down on the opening play of the series -- a 14-yard run by Tardy. A short run and two incomplete passes ended the series and then the Cougs committed a 10-yard penalty on the subsequent punt, giving Wisconsin the ball at midfield. The Badgers then went up 28-14 with 30 seconds left when Donovan hit Swan on a 38-yard pass.

NOTES:

  • The Cougars' leading tacklers were Chima Nwachukwu (8), Greg Trent (7.5), Matt Mullennix and Alfonso Jackson (6.5), Devin Giles (6) and Husain Abdullah (5.

  • Attendance at the game was 81,547.

  • WSU plays in Seattle next Saturday in a 4 pm kickoff against San Diego State.

  • Doba said several Cougars cramped up during the game, notably linebacker Ken Dunn, and running back Chris Ivory, but there was no injuries to report.

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