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Roundtable: Assessing the Badgers 31-22 loss to Washington State

The Wisconsin Badgers had a disappointing loss in Week 2 on the road vs. Washington State.

The Wisconsin Badgers suffered a disappointing 31-22 loss to the Washington State Cougars despite being favored by nearly six points, marking their first loss in the Luke Fickell era.

There were many storylines for the Badgers, going from coaching to the slow start to the struggling to finish games.

With Game 2 in the books, it’s a good time to introduce some new staff members who will be helping out during football season, and what better way to do that than a roundtable?

For this roundtable, I combined with new writers Scary Alvarez(yes, the one and only), Ritvik Gudlavalleti, and returning writer Nick Snow.

Q: What did you think of Luke Fickell’s coaching in his first road game?

Rohan: I thought Luke Fickell’s coaching was a tale of two halves. Early on, the Badgers looked out-matched and out-prepared. Defensively, rotations weren’t being made in cohesion with the tempo of the Washington State offense, which Fickell attributed to the coaching staff. The inexperienced, but talented Washington State staff clearly came into the game with more desire, and it showed in the first half.

But, you can’t deny that Luke Fickell got his players to be resilient and come out with a bang in the second half. While the Badgers couldn’t finish, something that Fickell preached early after his hiring, it was good resilience and a nice bounce-back effort instilled by the coaching staff at halftime.

Scary: Fickell’s staff (I’ll grade them as a whole) will have better games. They made some solid adjustments at halftime and found ways to move the ball when the OL and RBs had a tougher-than-expected time with the Cougar front seven, but even Fickell in his postgame presser admitted that there was a lack of preparation in some areas. They came out flat and didn’t have an immediate answer for their hyped-up opponent. This is far from ideal, but is an easier pill to swallow in week two than in week seven.

I was impressed, however, by Coach’s no-nonsense ownership of the result. He could have chalked the result up to a pair of hideous homer calls by Pac-12 officials doing Pac-12 official things (the Mellusi “fumble” was particularly egregious and occurred at a critical time that very possibly swung the game) but ate the blame for the loss and looked forward. I liked that.

Nick: A few things, First, it was disappointing to see the team come out and perform poorly to start the game. That's okay. Fickell cannot let it keep happening. Second, despite the slow start, it felt like the composure of Fickell and the Badgers kept them in the game. A phrase we heard a lot from Fickell in the offseason was: “how will we handle adversity?”. It was a hostile environment and they were on their heels early. The team seemed to make adjustments that put them in position to win the game. They just didn’t execute when it mattered the most.

A lot of people are going to be discouraged that they didn’t find a way to win but after the last few years, it was nice to see the team work its way out of the hole and show fight. So I’ll give Fickell credit there because in the past a two-score lead would’ve felt insurmountable for this program. This is just a bumpier start than people expected but I think they win these types of games later in the year.

Ritvik: Luke Fickell’s coaching this week was quite up and down. During the game against Washington St., there were clear instances of complete team miscommunications, and the defense honestly looked lost out there in the first half. The Badgers were simply out-game-planned this week, placing this loss in the hands of the coaching staff.

Q: What are the biggest issues for the Badgers after Week 2?

Rohan: I think the biggest issue for the Badgers in Week 2 was their defense. Coming into the game, the Badgers had reservations about their passing attack following the Week 1 win, but the defense has always been the area that Wisconsin has relied upon in the past. The defense delivered with just seven points allowed in the second half, but was significantly outplayed early, giving up 24 points in the first half, showcasing a number of miscommunications.

The offensive line can also be attributed here after Jack Nelson was consistently beaten for sacks. But, bigger picture-wise, I think a fair question is: can this team be successful if several key players are added via the transfer portal? The gelling with a new staff may take a bit of time, and that’s something the Badgers won’t be able to afford, especially in the future.

Scary: Wisconsin’s biggest issue overall was the lack of a running game, which ties directly into offensive line play. A talented, athletic front gave us all kinds of problems, and this will need correction before an even better one from Ohio State comes to Madison. But, in some ways, Longo’s offense functioned as it was supposed to, leaning on whatever the defense was giving.

Nick: They need to clean up the mental mistakes. If they avoid the unnecessary roughness penalty on the punt return early in the 4th quarter, they are in a better position to win the game. If they had avoided some of the procedural penalties on the OL, they would’ve been in a better position to win the game. They also need to limit turnovers. If they win the turnover battle they win the game. It also didn’t help that it felt like a lot of the calls that normally are 50/50 didn’t go the Badgers' way. Especially the Mellusi fumble. That was another blown call by the Pac-12 officials.

Ritvik: The Badgers’ biggest issues after week 2 are their defensive line and the turnover differential. With 3 turnovers in the game, all coming in crucial moments and in their own territory, the game was somewhat finished before it started. Cam Ward, the starting quarterback for Washington State, got into a rhythm right away, partly due to the fact that there were basically no QB pressures. While the D-line did improve as the game progressed, letting Ward get comfortable in the game early hurt them.

Q: Were there any positive takeaways from the game?

Rohan: I thought Tanner Mordecai was a positive in this game. Did he play perfect? No, not even close. But, Mordecai was aggressive downfield, giving his teammates chances, while his pocket mobility was an underrated key in Week 2. Mordecai will need to become a little more precise with his accuracy, as he missed high and too far on a few downfield passes, but it was a good change from a shaky Week 1.

Scary: This dovetails into one of my biggest positives: Tanner Mordecai. Last evening in Pullman was easily one of the best Wisconsin QB performances (factoring in opponent and environment) since 2018. That bodes well and is evidence that his week one struggles were an aberration. I also liked how the Badgers fought back after digging a huge hole in the first half. I maintain that if the Mellusi fumble call is not botched, Wisconsin wins the game.

Either way, everything this team wants to accomplish is still in front of them, but the first two games have shown that the team, despite a talent infusion and some smart, high-upside coaches, is still in a soft rebuild. The 2024 Badgers will be a better reflection of Fickell’s system, despite a much tougher schedule.

Nick: Mordecai showed us why he is the starter yesterday and that has me optimistic moving forward. That throw to Skylar Bell was incredible. When was the last time we saw a Badger QB do that? It also felt like we started seeing the passing offense click. They still have a lot of stuff to clean up but that’s gonna take time and reps. I’m hopeful these next few weeks will propel them to a nice start in big ten play. The entire season is still in front of this team. Yesterday was frustrating but there were plenty of glimpses of what this team could become.

Ritvik: The biggest positive takeaway or plus from this game is that this year’s Badgers team is resilient. After a horrible first half leading to a 25-9 Washington St. lead, the Badgers fought back hard in the third quarter cutting the lead to 2 points. Another major positive was the overall game from Tanner Mordecai. His precision and ability to extend the play played huge roles for the Badgers offense and something that was greatly missing last year with Mertz.