MADISON, Wis. - Nakia Watson acknowledged having extra motivation this week facing his former team.
No wonder he was a little more emotional than usual afterward.
Watson scored both of Washington State’s touchdowns as the Cougars upset No. 19 Wisconsin 17-14 on Saturday. Watson rushed for 522 yards and five touchdowns at Wisconsin from 2019-20 before transferring.
"Normally, I’m not a person that cries," Watson said afterward. "But I cried a little bit, I’m not going to lie."
Watson scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter and put the Cougars ahead for good by turning a short completion into a 31-yard score with 5:12 left in the third period. Watson said he followed the counsel of running backs coach Mark Atuaia, who reminded him to maintain his poise at all times.
He only let his emotions out once the game ended while thanking Atuaia for the advice.
"The fireworks were going in my head when the clock hit zero," said Watson, who had 10 carries for 33 yards.
Washington State (2-0) was about a 17-point underdog but survived a game that featured multiple bizarre plays and produced a happy homecoming for Watson and Cougars coach Jake Dickert.
Dickert was born in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, Wisconsin, about 65 miles east of Camp Randall Stadium. Dickert played for Wisconsin-Stevens Point from 2002-06, and about 200 friends and relatives gathered for a pregame tailgate.
Several of them hung around for a postgame celebration around the visitors’ locker room.
"I think a few of the are looking for some beers in the fridge that aren’t there," Dickert quipped. "Just Gatorades and water."
This game featured two separate plays in which one team intercepted a pass and then fumbled the ball away, creating a first down for the team that threw the pick.
Wisconsin (1-1) trailed 17-14 and faced third-and-6 from the Washington State 9 midway through the fourth quarter when defensive tackle Christian Mejia picked off a Graham Mertz pass before losing the ball. Mertz recovered the fumble at the Washington State 20, but a personal foul on tight end Clay Cundiff pushed Wisconsin back to the 35.
Cundiff then caught a 24-yard pass, but Quinn Roff forced a fumble that Sam Lockett III recovered at the 12 with 5:14 left.
Washington State never gave up possession the rest of the way.
Those two mistakes spoiled Cundiff’s day after he had caught two touchdown passes from Mertz in the second quarter, a 17-yarder and a 10-yarder. Those were Cundiff’s first touchdowns since the tight end dislocated his right ankle, broke a fibula and tore a foot ligament in a victory over Iowa last October.
"I had a good first half, but none of that will matter unless you finish on the right foot," Cundiff said. "I didn’t do that today."
There was plenty of blame to go around for Wisconsin.
The Badgers were penalized 11 times for 106 yards. Vito Calvaruso sent a 51-yard field goal wide right in the first quarter and was well short on a potential tying 43-yard attempt to start the final period.
"We did some things today that make it hard to win," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
Another interception-turned-fumble led to Washington State’s go-ahead score.
The Cougars trailed 14-10 and had third and 10 from their 47 when quarterback Cameron Ward was hit by Kamo’i Latu just as he threw a pass that Wisconsin’s Jay Shaw picked off. Washington State receiver Lincoln Victor then applied a hit that knocked the ball loose, and center Konner Gomness recovered the fumble at the Wisconsin 49.
"I take this one on me, to be completely honest with you," Shaw said.
Six plays later, Watson caught a pass just beyond the line of scrimmage, made a spin move to get past Latu at the 30 and raced untouched the rest of the way.
"There was most definitely a chip on my shoulder, just playing against my old boys, a couple of roommates," Watson said. "I feel like that’s the type of mentality that you have to have when you’re playing against people you know, just having that chip on your shoulder, that edge, fighting to the echo of the whistle."
Washington State hung on from there and gave Watson and Dickert moments they’ll never forget.
"My grandma told me something today. She was like, ‘Your grandpa would be so proud,’ if my grandpa was still here," Dickert said. "That’s a special moment. Special people that just know me as Jake Dickert. That’s always what we’ve been. I’m just proud to be able to win this game with all of them here cheering us on."
Washington State: Ward went 17 of 28 for 200 yards but threw two interceptions. The Cougars still won thanks to a defense that limited Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing attack to 174 yards on 44 carries. Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen had 21 carries for 98 yards, just the second time in his last 11 games that he’s been held below 100.
Wisconsin: The Badgers controlled the ball for over 38 minutes, ran 25 more plays than Washington State and outgained the Cougars 401-253. But those penalties proved costly. Wisconsin had its highest totals in penalties and yardage since getting flagged 13 times for 125 yards in a 47-44 victory over Purdue in 2018.
Wisconsin figures to fall out of the poll, while Washington State should at least get some votes.
Washington State: Hosts Colorado State on Saturday.
Wisconsin: Hosts New Mexico State on Saturday.