The Wisconsin Badgers were only 30 minutes away from what would have been one of the biggest regular season wins in program history.
On the national stage in Houston against No. 13 Louisiana State University, the 14th-ranked Badgers took a 17-7 lead over LSU midway through the third quarter. But the Tigers roared back, scoring 21 unanswered points while holding UW to only seven total points in the second half, defeating Wisconsin in front of 71,559 fans at NRG Stadium by a score of 28-24.
Corey Clement finished a 75-yard drive for the Badgers with a two-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that put Wisconsin in the driver’s seat, 24-7, but it all went LSU’s way after that.
Two third quarter field goals from Colby Delahoussaye cut the Badgers’ lead to only eleven. Then, Wisconsin could not find an answer to the LSU offensive attack in the final quarter of play that propelled the Tigers’ rally. LSU went on to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter that finally put them ahead.
Ahead by 24-13, Wisconsin appeared to have LSU in a tough spot in the fourth quarter with the Tigers facing third and 21 from the Wisconsin 36-yard line. But LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings connected with John Diarse for a 35-yard touchdown that pulled the Tigers within a field goal at 24-21 with 12:08 remaining in the game.
Tanner McEvoy, who made his first start at quarterback for the Badgers on Saturday, threw his first of two interceptions on the very next series for Wisconsin. The interception by Jalen Mills gave the Tigers the ball back on their own 47 yard line, down by just three.
Aided by the loss of Wisconsin starting defensive linemen Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski to injury, LSU ran the ball on three straight plays and went 53 yards in only one minute and 23 seconds. Kenny Hillard’s 28-yard rushing score capped off the drive, giving the Tigers their first lead of the game at 28-24.
McEvoy’s second interception with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter all but sealed the victory for LSU and gave them their FBS record 46th straight regular season non-conference victory.
Hillard led all LSU running backs with 111 yards on 18 carries Saturday. Highly-touted freshman Leonard Fournette finished the night with only 21 yards on eight carries for the Tigers.
McEvoy’s numbers were brutal, as he finished the night 8-for-24 with only 50 passing yards and two interceptions. He also rushed for 40 yards on six carries.
While McEvoy struggled in his first game at quarterback, Badgers’ head coach Gary Andersen attributes the struggle to the LSU pass defense, which had a strong pass rush and held many new, young Badgers wide receivers in check Saturday night. Andersen said that there was no plan to put last year’s starter, Joel Stave, in the game even with McEvoy struggling.
“They’re very, very talented,” Andersen said of the LSU defense. “I thought [LSU] had a very good pass defense, because they had a pass rush, and they had some talented good men covering us. They played their zone coverages well also.”
“When you can’t protect the passer, it doesn’t matter who your quarterback is,” Andersen added.
Despite what happened in the second half of the game, the Badgers appeared to be ready for the challenge against one of the Southeastern Conference’s toughest teams.
UW started the game scoring the first 10 points, beginning with a six play, 76-yard drive that ended in a Reggie Love 45-yard touchdown run. Freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone added a 51-yard field goal four minutes later, set up by a 22-yard scramble from McEvoy, and suddenly Wisconsin found themselves up 10-0 over LSU with 5:07 left in the first quarter.
The Badgers defense outplayed the LSU offense in the first half, surrendering only 136 yards and only 16 on the ground through the first 30 minutes of action. Eighty of those yards came on a Travin Dural touchdown pass from Jennings in the first quarter that gave the Tigers their first points of the game. Wisconsin, meanwhile, rattled off 182 rushing yards in the first half from Love, Gordon, McEvoy and Corey Clement.
Melvin Gordon answered the Dural score and gave the Badgers their second touchdown of the game with a 14-yard run in the second quarter that put Wisconsin up 17-7 with 7:36 left in the half.
Gordon, who rushed only four times in the second half, finished the game with 144 yards on 16 carries, averaging 8.8 yards per rush.
Dural led all receivers on the night with 151 yards on only three catches. Diarse, who caught the other touchdown of the night for LSU, finished with 47 yards receiving.
Jennings finished the season opener going 9-for-21 for LSU but finished with 238 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for the Tigers.
Alex Erickson caught three passes for 33 yards to lead the Badgers receivers on Saturday night.
Week two will not come on such a large of a stage, or even against a team in the FBS, as the Badgers will make their first appearance of the season at Camp Randall for their home opener against Western Illinois on Saturday. As Wisconsin puts this loss behind them, Andersen hopes the team can learn from Saturday’s defeat, while getting back in the right mindset.
“We’re really going to have to take a long, hard look at the film,” Andersen said. “I know [the players] learned a lot. I hope they can come back and recover quickly and get themselves in a spot to be ready to go. There were some good things. This will be a tremendous tape for us to look at and evaluate and we’ll see how we can move forward.”