LSU’s new quarterback started slowly, but when the Tigers needed him most, Garrett Nussmeier put the “NussBus” into high gear and guided the nation’s No. 1 offense 98 yards on a late fourth quarter drive to take their first lead of the game.
Then, something no one could have predicted happened.
LSU’s much-maligned defense stepped up with not one, not two, but three consecutive sacks after being run over roughshod all game long. They helped seal the Tigers’ 10th win of the season – the No. 1 goal coach Brian Kelly had heading into the ReliaQuest Bowl for the Tigers on New Year’s Day in Tampa Bay.
Nussmeier passed for 395 yards and three touchdowns, powering 13th-ranked LSU to begin its post-Jayden Daniels era with a come-from-behind 35-31 victory over Wisconsin on Monday.
Making his first college start after Daniels – the 2023 Heisman Trophy winner – opted out to begin preparing for the NFL draft, Nussmeier, LSU’s third-year redshirt sophomore quarterback completed 31 of 45 passes for 395 yards. He had touchdown passes of 14 yards to Chris Hilton Jr. and 38 and 4 yards to Brian Thomas Jr., whose second touchdown put LSU ahead with 3:08 remaining.
Nussmeier rallied the Tigers (10-3) from a 14-point second-half deficit to overshadow a career performance from Wisconsin’s Tanner Mordecai, who threw for a season-high 378 yards and three TDs for the Badgers (7-6), who played without star running back Braelon Allen. Allen opted out of the game to concentrate on the upcoming NFL draft, as did Daniels for LSU.
Nussmeier, who turns 22 in February, had appeared in 17 games over three years at LSU, including five this season while Daniels electrified the college football world with glowing and downright gaudy statistics – 3,812 yards and 40 TDs passing, 1,134 yards and 10 TDs rushing – on the way to winning the Heisman.
Wisconsin jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, then led LSU 21-14 at halftime. The Badgers, who struggled offensively most of the season, then built a 28-14 third-quarter lead and took a 31-28 into the fourth quarter.
With 6:02 left to play in the game and LSU still down by three, the Tigers took over on their own two-yard line following Atticus Bertram’s 40-yard punt.
On LSU’s first play of the possession, Nussmeier dropped five-yards deep into his own endzone and uncorked a deep pass down the right sideline but overshot Hilton who had outrun Wisconsin’s defensive backs.
Then, following a tough nine-yard run up the middle by fifth-year senior running back Josh Williams, Nussmeier shifted into another gear and set up LSU’s winning touchdown with completions of 37 yards to Kyren Lacy and 43 yards to Hilton. Thomas, who is likely to opt for the NFL soon where he is projected to be No. 1 draft pick, finished with eight catches for 98 yards, while Lacy had six receptions for 97 yards for the Tigers.
Mordecai, a sixth-year senior playing his final college game, finished 27 of 40 without an interception for the Badgers, who rolled up more than 500 yards of total offense despite playing without his top running threat, Allen.
Mordecai had only thrown six touchdown passes all season but managed to pick apart LSU’s secondary all game long on the slick field in Tampa Bay on Monday.
After Nussmeier hit Thomas to put LSU up 35-31, the Badgers had three minutes, or more than enough time, to rally through the Tigers’ defense.
Mordecai, starting at the Wisconsin 25, scrambled up the middle for four yards on first down before finding Bryson Green as he ran away from LSU cornerback Ashton Stamps for a 24-yard reception on the left sideline.
On the next play, Mordecai passed 11 yards to Will Pauling, who got past Stamps at the LSU 45 before Stamps and Andre Sam pulled him down at LSU 40. Pauling led Wisconsin in receiving with eight catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns.
With under two minutes to play, Mordecai found Green again, this time on the right sideline as LSU cornerback Javien Toviano, who was playing a tight man coverage on him slipped as Green cut out and reeled in the first down catch at the Tigers’ 27.
On the next play, with 1:42 left in the game, Mordecai connected with Vinny Anthony on a eight-yard completion. Sage Ryan initially had tight coverage on Anthony but Mordecai was under no pressure and was able to buy enough time for Anthony to wiggle open.
But that’s when LSU’s defense shocked the world.
On second and two, LSU defensive tackle Jordan Jefferson stripped Mordecai for a 13-yard loss back to the LSU 32. Anthony pounced on the loose ball for the Badgers, but on the next play, Mekhi Wingo made a diving lunge and sacked Mordecai for another 10-yard loss on third down after Maason Smith had broken through the Badger protection and forced Mordecai to flee up the middle.
Then, on fourth down and 25, Greg Penn III stripped sacked Mordecai at the LSU 45 and DeShawn Womack recovered for LSU.
A defensive stand for LSU with 38 seconds left to play to preserve the Tigers’ 10th win of the season.
RELIAQUEST BOWL PLAYER OF THE GAME: Nussmeier, QB – In his first start, he completed 31-of-45 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns. Nussmeier threw one interception, on a force in coverage to Thomas in the second quarter. Other than that, dude was near perfect all game long.
– Where did THAT Badger offense come from? Wisconsin’s offense couldn’t do much of anything great for most of the year, and then without any of its top receivers or best running backs, it ripped through the LSU defense that didn’t have enough answers after a rocky season – until it did. Late in the game, three consecutive sacks preserved the win for the Tigers.
IS LSU PROGRESSING TOWARDS ELITE? – A tenth-win for LSU was nice, but the team still wouldn’t have been good enough to make an expanded College Football Playoff – and that’s the bar going forward.
Malik Nabers is now the most accomplished wideout in the history of the program is now the Tigers’ all-time receiving yards leader.
He played the first half on Monday in the ReliaQuest Bowl after practicing for the month leading into it.
Nabers needed 22 yards to become LSU’s career receiving yardage leader. He had three receptions for 23 yards in the first half before taking a seat on Monday.
Nabers takes home the crown after eclipsing 3,003 yards for his LSU career.
Josh Reed, an LSU great, sat atop the rest with 3,001 career yards
This season through 10 games, he’s up to 72 catches for 1,284 yards and 10 TD with a whopping 17.8 yards per catch.
“His skill level has always been there,” Kelly said of his star. “His ability to come out every single day, maintain his emotion, and focus on what’s important – being at his best during practice and not being distracted by anything. I thought, at times last season, he got distracted, quite frankly. He had some up and downs during his practice.”