Solid ground: LSU coach Brian Kelly adamant second 10-win season, bowl victory places Tigers’ program on firm footing

Linebacker-turned-running back Harold Perkins (4) became the first defensive player to score an offensive touchdown in 28 years against Wisconsin. PHOTO BY: LSU athletics

LSU football coach Brian Kelly spoke it into existence in November after the Tigers’ 42-28 road loss to Alabama. His 10-win refrain became commonplace when he spoke, an indication of what he believed a second-straight double-digit victory total meant to the growth of his program.

A quarter into Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl, No. 13 LSU trailed 14-0 and it appeared redshirt sophomore quarterback Garrett Nussmeier’s first career start was stuck on the runway.

Wisconsin’s moderate offense found LSU’s porous defense to its liking and the Badgers’ defense forced three punts and held on downs on the Tigers’ first four possessions.

Then Nussmeier began to settle in, leading LSU to a pair of touchdown drives, overcoming a touchdown halftime deficit and another 14-point gap, with an impressive second half to help the No. 13 Tigers overtake the Badgers for a 35-31 victory at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.

It was the biggest comeback for an LSU team in bowl history, just eclipsing 13-point deficits against Wyoming in the 1968 Sugar Bowl and Florida State in the 1966 Peach Bowl.

“I think it really stabilizes the program,” Kelly said of the team’s final 10-3 season. “Stability within your program, stability within the ranks of your recruitment. For us, it’s been recruiting, development and retention. You do that, but you can’t do it when you’re really effectively, say, 3-9, 4-8. When you have to back-to-back 10-win seasons, and you’re doing it with bowl victories, as well, that builds on it going into the off-season, it certainly helps a lot.”

Kelly has taken a program with 39 scholarships and directed LSU to 20 victories, including a pair of bowl wins, the past two seasons.

It was the 12th 10-win season of Kelly’s career and seventh consecutive dating to his 10-3 team at Notre Dame in 2017 – the nation’s second-longest such streak.

Moreover, the Tigers capped the ’23 season with four straight victories and have an outside chance to finish in the Top 10 when the AP releases its final Top 25 after Monday’s national championship game.

“A team that’s won 20 games over the last two years, has a good foundational base of what LSU football teams’ expectations are,” Kelly said. “This is a team that year in, year out should be competing for championships. You can’t do that when you come in with 35, 36 scholarships. You have to stabilize it and build that from within. I think we’ve done a really good job the first two years of stabilizing, put a strong base on it. Now as we go into 2024, I feel really good that this team, this program is stabilized and now ready to really ascend as we move forward.”

Nussmeier passed for a 216 of his career-high 375 yards and three touchdowns in the second half to make his first career start a memorable one.

He replaced Heisman Trophy-winner Jayden Daniels at quarterback and calmy directed LSU back from a pair of 14-point deficits, leading the Tigers on a game-winning 98-yard drive that he capped with a 4-yard TD pass to Brian Thomas Jr. with 3:08 left in the game.

“It’s just sticking to the process, sticking to what we work on all the time in practice, going through reps, going through my reads the right way,” Nussmeier said. “Like I said earlier, the amount of athletes we have in the offensive line makes my job easy. All the credit goes to them and the coaches for putting us in the right play and allowing us to make plays.”

Kelly believed in Nussmeier during the team’s final drive.

“His ability to manage the moment, his ability to be calm in those situations, speaks of a guy that is going to only excel and get better as he plays more football,” he said.

Wisconsin’s Tanner Mordecai feasted on LSU’s defense with 219 of his season-high 378 passing yards and two of his three TDs in the first half. The Badgers, who ranked No. 75 in total yards per game (370.8) and 100th in scoring offense (22.8), easily surpassed those norms with 506 yards and 31 points, respectively.

“Our team was down at the half,” Kelly said. “You could tell that it was one of the lowest points all season. I could sense that. We had to take it as a learning moment and what kind of adversity we were under, let’s see if we could bounce back from this.

“This would be a great learning experience for a lot of younger players especially on the defensive side of the ball and a quarterback who has obviously taken over for a Heisman Trophy winner,” Kelly said. “There was a lot to prove in the second half.”

Wisconsin (7-6) threatened to leave LSU in its wake on Jackson Acker’s 33-yard scoring run for a 28-14 lead at the 12-minute mark of the third quarter.

“It was uneven at times,” Kelly said of his team’s play. “But if you just keep playing, you just trust your process, then eventually it’s going to come together for you. They didn’t panic. They didn’t get outside the lanes. They just kept playing. They played one play at a time and the tide started turning for them.”

Nussmeier directed LSU’s offense on consecutive scoring drives – a stretch of seven minutes – to help pull the Tigers even at 28-all on touchdown passes to Thomas and Chris Hilton Jr.

The Badgers made it 31-28 with just over a minute to go in the third quarter when the Tigers’ defense forced a pair of punts.

The defense was just getting warmed up.

Nussmeier led LSU on a game-winning 8-play drive that lasted just over three minutes and required only one third-down conversion. Running back Josh Williams carried twice for 11 yards and a first down, but it was Nussmeier’s ability to find wide out Kyren Lacy for a 37-yard gain and Hilton for another 43 yards, to make victory become a reality.

After Williams carried for three yards on first down, Nussmeier waited for Thomas to break at the goal line and delivered a perfect pass for a 4-yard score.

Thomas led LSU with eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns, tight end Mason Taylor followed with seven catches for 88 yards and Lacy six receptions for 95 yards.

“I mean, you got to give them a lot of credit,” Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said of LSU. “We haven’t seen that much skill the whole year. It was difficult on us. We tried to make some adjustments. I give them credit. Our guys continued to battle. But they made some big plays. They made some big plays down the field. I think really, if I would say anything about it, we couldn’t pressure the quarterback. They did a really good job up front protecting him, buying him time, really letting him throw the ball.”

Thomas, the nation’s leader in touchdown receptions with 17, finished only behind Ja’Marr Chase (20) and Justin Jefferson (18) on the school’s single-season list.

“I’m really proud of us as an offense,” Nussmeier said. “That doesn’t just speak to me. That speaks to our entire group. Can’t do it by myself. To go 98 yards with the game on the line, that means a lot to me. To be the leader of the offense, that matters more than about myself.”

There was still the small detail of keeping Wisconsin without a touchdown over the next 3:08 of the game. The Badgers picked up three first downs to LSU’s 27-yard line when the Tigers’ defense showed some teeth with three straight sacks of Mordecai with the last one producing a fumble that freshman Da’Shawn Womack recovered with 31 seconds left.

“I think it’s special,” Nussmeier said. “It shows the buy-in we created. This win speaks volumes to who we want to be, to get to work, us progress in the off-season.”

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