Football: Wisconsin falls to LSU in ReliaQuest Bowl to kick off new year

Mordecai, Pauling shine in back-and-forth affair

· Jan 1, 2024 Tweet

Soren Goldsmith/The Badger Herald

The University of Wisconsin football team traveled south to Tampa, Florida, to take on No. 13 ranked Louisiana State University in the ReliaQuest Bowl — formerly known as the Outback Bowl.

UW entered the game with a 7-5 record after tallying wins against rivals in the University of Nebraska and University of Minnesota to end the season. LSU came to Raymond James Stadium with a 9-3 record behind the play of their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jayden Daniels.

Fortunately for the Badgers, Daniels decided to opt out of the matchup — giving backup quarterback Garrett Nussmeier an opportunity to start for the first time in his career.

Quarterback Tanner Mordecai took the field for one last time donning the red and white, and showed up in the final game of his extended college tenure.

The start could not have been much better for UW’s offense.

Known for most of the season as an offense plagued by the slow start, Mordecai and his teammates were clicking on the Badgers’ first two drives, despite missing key pieces from their usual starting lineup.

Wide receiver Will Pauling — one of Mordecai’s top targets all year — ignited the UW offense with a 41-yard catch down the left side of the field. It set up fellow wide receiver Bryson Green, who used his physicality to sky for a touchdown above a Tiger defender to give the Badgers a 7–0 advantage.

The defense continued to hold strong against the No. 1 offense in the country, allowing the offense to expand its lead. A quick strike over the middle to Pauling on a slant route led to a 53-yard burst to the end zone, exposing LSU’s team weakness on the defensive end.

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After a quarter of play, UW led 14–0. The Tigers forged a response though, stringing together multiple scoring drives in the second quarter.

A 17-yard punt from Atticus Bertrams gave LSU their first quality field position of the game, and they took advantage quickly. Multiple completed passes eventually led to a one-yard run from running back Harold Perkins Jr. cut the Badgers’ lead in half.

Another drive stalled out for UW, and LSU marched down the field again to tie the ballgame at 14–14.

It was Pauling’s presence again for the Badgers in response, as UW used a personal foul penalty and a smooth offensive rhythm to quickly snag the lead back. Pauling broke free over the middle again — this time in the red zone — and Mordecai found him to convert the touchdown.

Mordecai finished with 219 yards of passing and three touchdowns in the first half — both season-highs for the veteran leader of this group.

The Badgers’ defense was able to find their footing late in the second quarter, as defensive back Ricardo Hallman notched his seventh interception of the season after picking off Nussmeier. Offensively, UW could not capitalize and settled for a 21–14 lead heading into halftime.

The game turned into a true shootout in the second half — an area where LSU had found themselves throughout the year.

While the passing attack remained UW’s strong suit in this one, it was running back Jackson Acker who broke free and sprinted to the end zone for a 33-yard rush to cash in another touchdown.

UW once again held a 14-point lead, but could not hang on in a short manner of time. LSU struck immediately with a 38-yard pass to star wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr., and carried that momentum when the Badgers could not maintain their drive on the next possession.

The Tigers went back to the air with Nussmeier — who emerged as an interesting prospect in this game. The young quarterback lofted a ball toward the corner of the end zone to wide receiver Chris Hilton Jr. — who kept his foot in the field of play despite drifting out of bounds to score their second straight touchdown.

LSU had tied it up once again, and it was time for the Badgers to respond. Unfortunately for UW, numerous mistakes made it difficult for the offense to regain its rhythm. Mordecai and the offense — despite sustaining drives — could only muster up a field goal in the last 27 minutes of action.

Late in the third quarter, Green made a stellar catch on a deep ball from Mordecai, but the Badgers were stood up at the goal line. The Tigers forced negative yardage on a read-option, and then stopped two straight running plays from UW to draw a field goal.

Kicker Nathanial Vakos knocked it in to give the red and white a 31–28 lead as the third quarter came to close.

From there, the LSU defense remained stout. UW became overwhelmed by the Tigers’ offensive attack later on in the fourth, as Nussmeier and a strong offensive line put together a quality drive to score a touchdown.

For the first time all game, LSU had a lead over UW, up 35–31 with about three minutes to go. It was up to Mordecai and UW’s offense to pull through to win the battle.

The drive began with multiple completed passes to wide receivers Vinny Anthony II, Green and Pauling. It eventually came to a close though, as the Tigers’ pass rush forced three straight sacks against Mordecai, who did his best to attempt to use his legs as he did all game.

The Badgers eventually could not convert on a 4th-and-25 play, giving LSU the 35–31 win and ReliaQuest Bowl trophy.

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Mordecai ended his college career on a high note despite the final outcome, going 27-for-40 with 378 passing yards and three touchdown passes. Pauling finished with a career-high 143 receiving yards — resulting in two touchdowns. Freshman wide receiver Trech Kekahuna was a bright spot as well — catching four passes for 64 yards.

A young group who missed the presence of running back Braelon Allen fell short in Florida against one of the top teams in the country. The Badgers finished 7-6 in head coach Luke Fickell’s first year under the helm, and now look to take this experience and build off of it for the future.

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This article was published Jan 1, 2024 at 4:33 pm and last updated Jan 1, 2024 at 4:33 pm

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