By ROBERT STEWART
Tiger Rag Editor
HOUSTON — Everything seemed dead for LSU going into the fourth quarter against Wisconsin.
The momentum, the crowd, the offense — none of it was alive when the final frame started with the Tigers trailing the Wisconsin Badgers 24-13.
But LSU (1-0) miraculously racked up 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter Saturday in Houston’s NRG Stadium, stealing a 28-24 comeback victory largely on the back of a viable-enough passing game, senior running back Kenny Hilliard’s game-winning touchdown run and 110 rushing yards — 93 of which came in the fourth quarter — and a defense that shut down an anemic Wisconsin passing attack.
"Our football team, there’s a resiliency and a competitiveness,” LSU coach Les Miles said. "This next week will be fun to correct and we’ll improve and we’ll go forward. There’s some quality teams we have to play and certainly next week will be no exception.”
It was quite the juxtaposition from the first half, when LSU struggled to gain only 136 yards on 30 plays while falling to a 17-7 halftime deficit against the Badgers.
But LSU came roaring back in the second half with a new focus on offense, earning 229 total yards with a balance of effective runs and just enough passing to stretch the field.
The LSU defense also suffered early, surrendering 215 total yards in the first half, 182 of which came on the ground. But the Tiger defenders limited the Badgers to 103 yards after halftime.
The passing games were almost unwatchable at times in the first half, as the two squads combined for only 153 yards — only 33 of which came from Wisconsin.
But LSU’s aerial assault ultimately won out in the end.
After throwing for only 120 yards in the first half, sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings completed 9-of-21 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns — and more importantly, no interceptions — in leading LSU to victory.
LSU, after all the talk this offseason about using two quarterbacks, largely stuck with Jennings in this game. Freshman Brandon Harris only played one series.
Jennings struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, completing only 5 of 15 passes for 120 yards, 80 of which came on a long touchdown pass.
But he made just enough big plays in the game for LSU’s offense to be effective, particularly in the second half.
"I got more comfortable in the pocket and more comfortable with the defense they were running,” Jennings said. "All of my teammates around me helped calm me down and got me in the groove of things.”
Wisconsin’s Tanner McEvoy, on the other hand, struggled mightily. He finished 8-of-24 for 50 yards and two interceptions, both in the fourth quarter at key moments.
The LSU offensive line, lauded as the strength of the team heading into this season, failed to win the battle in the trenches in the first half, as evidenced by the Tigers’ 16 rushing yards — and Jennings’ frequent scrambles when passing.
But the linemen earned a second-half knockout, rushing for 110 yards against a Badger front seven that outplayed LSU’s offensive line early.
"We had young linemen mistakes,” Miles said. "When they see that film, those corrections are easy to be made.”
Wisconsin raced to a 7-0 first-quarter lead on a 45-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Reggie Love on a jet sweep to the left side. The Badgers picked up a 51-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglianone on their next drive for a 10-0 lead.
But LSU responded quickly. Jennings scrambled right and found wideout Travin Dural for an 80-yard bomb, and Dural outran the Badger secondary to take it to the house, cutting LSU’s deficit to 10-7.
Several drives later, tight end Travis Dickson coughed up a pass from Jennings at LSU’s 31-yard line. Star Badger running back Melvin Gordon made the Tigers pay five plays later, scoring a 15-yard touchdown through a huge hole up the middle.
Things started poorly for the Tigers in the third quarter. LSU was penalized for delay of game on the kickoff before the frame even started, and Gordon ripped off a 63-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, setting up a 2-yard touchdown for fellow running back Corey Clement and a 24-7 lead that seemed insurmountable.
Gordon, oddly enough, was almost nowhere to be found in the second half. After carrying the ball 13 times for 85 yards in the first half and the 63-yard run in the third, Gordon only carried the ball two more times in the fourth quarter for 1 yard total.
"We go with what our coach says,” Gordon said. "He calls us in and that’s what we go with.”
Still trailing 24-7 in the third quarter, LSU faced a fourth-and-4 at its own 43-yard line. But Les Miles gambled and called a fake punt, and upback Kendell Beckwith rushed just far enough for a first down.
LSU marched to Wisconsin’s 8-yard line thanks to a 44-yard heave from Jennings to Dural. But the Tigers couldn’t capitalize on the big play, settling for a 30-yard field goal by Colby Delahoussaye to cut the deficit to 24-10.
Delahoussaye added a 47-yard field goal later in the third, bringing LSU to within 24-13 heading into the fourth.
While the trick play helped LSU find some momentum, the Tigers found their real spark in the fourth quarter courtesy of wide receiver John Diarse.
LSU drove all the way to the Wisconsin 36-yard line early in the fourth. Jennings then found Diarse toward the right sideline, and Diarse broke at least two tackles on his way to the end zone for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 24-19. Jennings hit a wide open Trey Quinn on a two-point conversion to bring LSU within 24-21.
LSU safety Jalen Mills intercepted a McEvoy pass on the next drive, setting up the Tigers at their own 47-yard line.
Miles entrusted Hilliard with every carry on that drive, and Hilliard delivered in a big way.
He ripped off back-to-back carries of 17 and 8 yards before rushing right through the middle of the Wisconsin defense for a game-winning 28-yard touchdown.
"I think our mind wasn’t in it (the game) during the first half,” Hilliard said. "Our senior and junior counselors got together, brought everyone up and told us to stay with it. That’s what we did.”