In the Cougars, the Badgers are seeing a familiar opponent, as the two teams matched up at Camp Randall Stadium in 2022, with the former beating the latter in an ugly 17-14 game.
Now, the two sides will decide their rematch in Washington, with much changing from last year’s team for the Badgers.
However, they’ll be facing a familiar face in dual-threat quarterback Cameron Ward, who had a strong outing in Week 1, completing 37/49 passes for 450 yards in a 50-24 win.
How are the Badgers preparing for Ward and the tempo offense that Washington State is planning to run?
Speaking with the media on Monday, head coach Luke Fickell praised the opposing quarterback, pointing out his progressions as a passer in Week 1.
“I don’t think he ran as much last year as he did in game 1,” Fickell said in reference to Ward being more of a pocket passer this season,” and I think maybe that’s what they’re kind of referring to. But it was a situation that they were in, and he was aggressive, and I think that it’s definitely noticeably different than what probably we had watched from our game last year.”
However, in preparation for this week’s game, Fickell didn't rely as much on last year’s film against Washington State, instead focusing on the type of offense they’re showcasing this season.
“We didn’t watch a ton of other things on them last year, watching a little bit more for them, in particular what kind of offense they are this year, and obviously studying game 1.”
But, on Ward specifically, Fickell pointed out the quarterback’s aggressive nature, as well as the dual-threat capability, that makes him a dangerous threat at the position.
“But, I think that there are some definite differences to him in his ability, his aggressive nature. I think running the football is probably the one thing that I noticed more than anything.”
Now, the Badgers could have their hands full with the up-tempo offense that Washington State is expected to showcase.
While the Badgers’ defense has gone up against the Phil Longo offense all offseason, which should alleviate some of the preparation concerns, Fickell understands the difficulty of that type of offense in a new environment.
“Yeah, I think this is going to be faster than what we’ve been probably experiencing for the most part through spring and through fall. So, the good news is we’ve gotten some work at it, but it’s always different when all of a sudden you get especially go on the road, you get in a new environment, you get the anxiety of actual game. So those kinds of things are really critical.”
The main area where the Badgers are hoping to win at? Playing “clean”, which can become muddled during high-tempo games, stressing the importance of that factor even more.
“And on that whole idea of being clean, I think the one thing that sometimes the pace of the game and the tempo of the game can do to you is cause you some of those issues,” Fickell said. “So if you’re not sound and you’re not clean in what you’re doing, sometimes the tempo affects you even more. So that’s why I think we’ve got a work cut out for us, and I think in the way we prepare for this and not just like, say, okay, well, we’ve handled tempo because our offense gives us to all spring and all fall camp.”
Safety Hunter Wohler shared a similar sentiment to Fickell, pointing to Ward’s athleticism and confidence as driving factors in his play.
“He’s a good athlete, really good athlete, good quarterback, and he’s confident,” Wohler said. “He had a good year last year. He did.”
What’ll be the goal for the Badgers to stop him this weekend? Containing him and looking to make Ward uncomfortable in the pocket by getting pressure and taking away early options.
“[He had a] great game this past weekend, so containing him is going to be really big and making him get off his spot, not letting him get to his first read,” Wohler said. “So it’s going to be a lot of trying to make him uncomfortable. That’s what you have to do. [The plan for] all good quarterbacks is try to make them uncomfortable. So that’s going to be an emphasis for us going into Washington on Saturday.”
Containing a dual-threat quarterback is much easier said than done though, and linebacker Maema Njongmeta understands that. Instead, the concept truly comes down to disciplined play, which the Badgers’ were inconsistent with in Week 1 early.
“Yeah, I think a guy is more dangerous if he’s still going to try to extend the play [with his legs]. I think you just have to be disciplined,” Njongmeta said. “I think as far as their passing game, it seems pretty straightforward so far. They always have a trick or two up their sleeve. It’s going to come down to fundamentals fit, confidence, key discipline. I think it’s going to come down to that. Being able to do that consistently.”
However, the linebacker wasn't as worried with the idea of facing a high-tempo offense, believing in the team’s ability to display disciplined football.
“I think people give tempo offenses too much credit,” Njongmeta said. “I think again, at the end of the day, your discipline in lining up with speed, being conditioned obviously is a given that being shaped to be able to handle that. I think those are all things we were good at last year and sure, you can say we’re even better prepared for that this year. I know what to expect playing for a second game. I have a better feel for them.”
The other element of playing a dual-threat quarterback comes in the run game, where it’s essentially 11-on-11 football, but Njongmeta believes the Badgers will be well prepared for those possibilities.
“Yeah, I think when you play any dual threat quarterback, you need to be clean on discipline on your reads, discipline on your responsibility,” Njongmeta said. “Adding the quarterback plus one run game, that’s what we call it, the plus one run game. Having the quarterback adds another element to it, but we’ll be prepared for that, without a doubt.”
The Badgers understand the task at hand; it comes down to clean football in a high-risk situation, while being disciplined with your assignments.
Now, as stated earlier, that’s easier said than done, as the Badgers had a few bad angles and missed tackles on Saturday.
Against a dual-threat quarterback who can extend possibilities for his offense, the Badgers won’t have as much room for mistakes. We’ll see if they come prepared to get the job done.