PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) — Cameron Ward passed for 212 yards and two touchdowns and added another 43 yards rushing, Nakia Watson scored on a 1-yard run with 5:30 remaining and Washington State upset No. 19 Wisconsin 31-22 on Saturday night.
Ward scrambled for runs of 23 yards and 14 yards during a pivotal fourth-quarter drive to help the Cougars avoid a second-half meltdown and beat the Badgers for the second straight season. Watson capped the drive with his 1-yard plunge.
Washington State (2-0) hosted its first Power Five nonconference opponent since 1998 and played its first home game since the collapse of the Pac-12 this summer. Facing an uncertain future as a Power Five program, Washington State put on a show in the first half to race to a 24-6 lead.
“In this moment, it’s everything. We belong in the Power Five,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said on the field as it was flooded by celebrating fans after the upset. “These kids have worked their (tails) off. I’m so damn proud of them.”
Wisconsin (1-1) scored 16 straight points and was driving in the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead before running back Chez Mellusi fumbled near midfield.
The Badgers lost three fumbles and had little go right in the first half. Nathanial Vakos made three field goals in the first half, but Wisconsin didn’t find the end zone until Mellusi’s 2-yard run midway through the third quarter that cut Washington State’s lead to 24-16.
Mordecai hit Skyler Bell on a 16-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter to pull Wisconsin to 24-22, but the two-point conversion attempt failed.
Mordecai was 25 of 40 for 278 yards and fumbled twice, both on sacks by Ron Stone Jr. One of the fumbles was recovered by Brennan Jackson for a touchdown in the first half.
Washington State held the Badgers’ potent running back duo of Mellusi and Braelon Allen to 69 yards on 19 carries.
“The reality is, we have enough talent to win,” first-year Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said.
The Cougars punted on their first four second-half possessions and totaled just 119 yards after halftime. But they got a much-needed jolt when safety Jaden Hicks forced the Mellusi fumble and cornerback Jackson Lataimua recovered.
“We didn’t have the second half we wanted as an offense.” Ward said. “But we didn’t flinch.”
Dickert was proud of how his team responded in “gut-check time” of a nationally televised game and in front of 33,024 fans at Martin Stadium.
“This is a crux point for Washington State and Washington State football,” Dickert said. “We’re carrying the flag for all the transition, and this is a pivotal moment for where we want to go. Wherever we end up, we’ve got to commit to being great. And I think that’s what this statement (win) means is that we are here. We’re fighting, and even as college football is changing, we’re still getting pretty good results.”
Black pirate flags and shirts were all over Martin Stadium in honor of Mike Leach, the former Washington State coach who died in December.
The Cougars burst through the tunnel before the game with eight players waving pirate flags. A handful of former players then raised a large black flag with the Cougars logo and crossing swords in the southeast corner of the stadium. Most Washington State coaches also wore black pirate shirts in honor of the coach who led the Cougars to six bowl games from 2012-2019.
KLAY THOMPSON IN THE HOUSE
Former Washington State basketball star Klay Thompson was on the sideline for the big matchup and presented the Washington State women’s basketball team with the Pac-12 conference championship trophy during a timeout in the first quarter.
Washington State may not have a future as a Power Five conference, but it showed it belonged – for the second straight year – against the Badgers of the Big Ten. Wisconsin, meanwhile, faces plenty of questions two games into Luke Fickell’s tenure.
Wisconsin: Host Georgia Southern on Saturday.
Washington State: Host Northern Colorado on Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll