MADISON, Wis. — For nine months, Luke Fickell didn’t have much in the way of negativity to deal with as Wisconsin’s football coach. There was so much anticipation to the newness of it all — staff changes, personnel upgrades through the transfer portal and an offensive overhaul — that the focus lingered on what the Badgers could be. As offseasons go, it felt as though Fickell went undefeated.
That was all before Fickell lost a game. But with Washington State handing Wisconsin a 31-22 setback on Saturday night in Pullman, Wash., the honeymoon phase is officially over.
Badgers fans expect results. So does Fickell. And what happened at Martin Stadium won’t satisfy anyone.
“We got outplayed, to be honest with you,” Fickell said Monday during his weekly news conference. “That’s just being real. We said to our guys after the game that especially when you go on the road, you’ve got to earn everything that you get. And we didn’t do a good enough job at that.
“I also reminded them and told them I’ve played worse games and found a way to win. So what’s difficult about when you get punched in the gut, what’s difficult about actually losing is can you be as constructive on yourself because you have some of those feelings of not obviously coming out on top and having a victory. So that’s a challenge to us that we’re hopefully going to embrace. I know us as a coaching staff, me in particular, I’m definitely going to embrace that.”
As rivals spurn Washington State, fans reckon with future but revel in night to celebrate
Fickell said if he had been told on Friday that Wisconsin would have the ball at midfield in the fourth quarter down two points and with a chance to seize control of the game, he gladly would have taken those odds. But Wisconsin never threatened to score. Running back Chez Mellusi lost a fumble that led to a Washington State touchdown, and the Badgers later turned the ball over on downs.
“That’s what we’ve trained for,” Fickell said. “That’s where we want to be in a battle and give us a chance to close a game out and find a way to win.”
Here are some other key takeaways from Fickell:
Running back Braelon Allen carried just twice for four yards during the first half against Washington State and finished with seven rushing attempts for 20 yards. It served as a stark contrast from Wisconsin’s season opener, in which Allen carried 17 times for 141 yards with two touchdowns.
Allen’s seven carries marked the fewest of his career since he became a starter during the middle of his freshman season in 2021. The only game in which he finished with fewer rushing yards came last season against Illinois when he tallied eight carries for two yards. Allen also contributed six receptions for 12 yards on Saturday.
Fickell acknowledged that Washington State’s No. 1 objective was to stop the run one week after the Badgers rushed for 312 yards. But Wisconsin didn’t do enough to be multi-dimensional.
“We talked about this before the season started: Your ability to take what is there and what is given is what we’ve got to be able to go with when you believe you’ve got some more weapons than just two tailbacks,” Fickell said. “It’s not the same as it has been, and I think that’s where we’ve all got to recognize that. I’m not saying it’s right or it’s better or whatever it is. But there’s a flow to things.
“And I think he’s mature. He understands that. He’s disappointed. He obviously wants to touch the ball a lot more and more than just selfishly feels like he can be more of an impact. And I agree with him. He can be more of an impact. But the opportunities that we get, we’ve all got to take advantage of.”
Luke Fickell’s redo at Wisconsin could take longer than hoped
Mellusi has carried the ball 381 times during his college career. It wasn’t until Saturday that he lost his first fumble on a close call that was difficult to determine even on replay. Officials ruled on the field that Mellusi fumbled, and there didn’t appear to be enough of an angle on replays to overturn that decision. The turnover proved to be critical because Wisconsin trailed 24-22 at the time and had the ball at midfield in the fourth quarter. Washington State subsequently scored a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
“He was crushed after the game,” Fickell said. “It’s not one play. That’s what we remind everybody all the time. But it is hard. A guy that has that much pride, has worked that hard. And he knows that the opportunities are not just like you’re going to line up and get the ball 35 times. They’ve got a great duo of guys. So it makes it even more difficult. But I think everybody’s got the utmost confidence in him. And that’s what he’s got to have in himself.”
Fickell said he had a conversation with Mellusi once they returned to Madison because he believed his running back was still hanging onto the play and needed to move on. Mellusi has fumbled just one other time in his career, during a 2021 game against Purdue, but Wisconsin recovered the ball. Mellusi’s 206 yards rushing and three touchdowns lead the team this season.
“You’ve got to put it past you,” Fickell said. “But you’ve got to remember the feeling. Those feelings are what continue to motivate you. You don’t let them hold you back. So I fully expect him to not bat an eye over it. But I can tell you that he took it really hard. But you saw the kind of maturity that his teammates have, the trust they have in him.”
Latu’s playing time
It’s an understatement to say that Wisconsin safety Kamo’i Latu has struggled on the field early this season. He was credited by Pro Football Focus with five missed tackles during Wisconsin’s season opener against Buffalo, which tied for the most in the country. On Saturday at Washington State, Latu had a few coverage miscues.
During Washington State’s first drive, Latu left receiver Kyle Williams wide open leaking downfield, but quarterback Cameron Ward didn’t see him. Later, Latu bit on a trick play in which Ward threw a backward pass to receiver Lincoln Victor that subsequently went for a 39-yard pass to receiver Cooper Mathers down to the 1-yard line. The play set up a touchdown that gave Washington State a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Preston Zachman replaced Latu the rest of the way. Latu finished with 18 snaps played, per PFF, while Zachman played 50 snaps. Fickell acknowledged after the opener that coaches needed to have the ability to roll through more safeties, particularly when a player like Latu became overaggressive and out of sorts. The staff held true to that belief by replacing Latu in Week 2.
Fickell praised Zachman’s performance and said it was especially impressive because Zachman had spent all week working in practice at the position that safety Hunter Wohler plays. Both Wohler and Zachman were used during the preseason as part of the dollar defense, in which they move up the field at linebacker depth. Zachman finished with four tackles and a pass breakup against Washington State.
Latu has played 77 total snaps this season, and PFF stats list him with the lowest overall defensive grade (40.0), lowest tackling grade (27.4) and lowest coverage grade (36.0) on the team. Although Latu started 12 games last season and tied for fourth on the team with 55 tackles, he has plenty of work to do.
“We’ve got to find ways to figure out what our personnel is going to be, whether that’s offense or defense,” Fickell said. “The realities are each and every week, you’ve got to perform, and I don’t just mean on Saturday. I mean the way you handle yourself on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I think that’s one of the bigger lessons. I’m not saying how it was in the past. But all of our guys have got to understand that.
“Tuesday and Wednesday are going to be really big days. And if we’ve created a competition within all these rooms, then Tuesday and Wednesday are still part of an evaluation period. So he’ll go back out there on Tuesday and work at it again and find ways to continue to get better. I think it’s just the little things, emotional things that he’s got to continue to do a good job with.”
Fickell was asked about the injury progress of three players who began preseason practices with expectations of being key contributors: center Jake Renfro, tight end Riley Nowakowski and defensive lineman Isaiah Mullens. Fickell suggested that Renfro and Mullens had the potential to return to practice in the next couple of weeks. He said he was optimistic that Nowakowski would be available after Wisconsin’s idle week, which would put his return in early October.
Renfro has been sidelined with a right foot sprain since mid-August. He spent the early portion of the preseason as the No. 2 center while working his way back from a stress fracture in his left foot sustained during spring practice. Renfro, a 2021 first-team all-AAC performer, transferred from Cincinnati to Wisconsin during the offseason. His absence has forced Tanor Bortolini from guard into the starting center role. Wisconsin has used just six offensive linemen as part of its regular rotation through two games.
Fickell previously said Mullens underwent a scope in August. Mullens, a sixth-year senior, has appeared in 40 career games with 10 starts. When healthy this preseason, he was part of a top-four rotation on the defensive line with Rodas Johnson, James Thompson Jr. and Gio Paez. Wisconsin continues to search for playmakers up front and played seven defensive linemen against Washington State.
Nowakowski, who opened the preseason as the first tight end up with the starting offense, is battling a foot injury. Without him and Jack Pugh (personal reasons), Wisconsin has relied on Hayden Rucci and Tucker Ashcraft for its tight end snaps. Rucci played 42 snaps against Washington State, while Ashcraft played five. JT Seagreaves appeared for two snaps.
Fickell said he did not have a further update on the appeal process for Air Force transfer Michael Mack II after his eligibility waiver was denied. Mack was brought in to provide added depth at cornerback on the outside. So far, the Badgers have used just three corners on the outside with Ricardo Hallman (138 snaps), Alexander Smith (106 snaps) and Nyzier Fourqurean (33 snaps). Jason Maitre has been the lone slot corner on the field. Fickell previously voiced his displeasure with the situation Mack finds himself in.
“I’m going to kind of hold my tongue to say anything about the Air Force Academy and how they’ve treated the kid, in my opinion,” Fickell said. “I’m not saying anything against the NCAA. It’s in their hands. But at some point in time, I will say how I feel about the way he’s been treated by where he went to school.”
(Top photo: James Snook / USA Today)