A wide-eyed Jayden Daniels with an ear-to-ear smile couldn’t wait to congratulate his apprentice.
For an entire season Garrett Nussmeier was the understudy to Daniels, the nation’s best college player. He was the one always on the giving end of a triumphant touchdown celebration that produced a Heisman Trophy pose during a 56-14 victory over Georgia State.
This time, it was Daniels’ turn to repay the favor, seeking out Nussmeier after No. 13 LSU’s 35-31 win over Wisconsin in Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa, Florida.
“I appreciate our relationship a lot,” Nussmeier said. “It was kind of a moment, it was like the roles reversed for once, you know what I’m saying (laughter)? I’m used to giving him a high-five after he made a Heisman statement or something like that. It was cool. I appreciate him a lot. I’m grateful for the time we had together.”
Nussmeier made his collegiate start a memorable one, taking over for Daniels who opted out of playing in the game, and passed for a career-high 395 yards and three touchdowns. He helped the Tigers (10-3) twice rally from two-touchdown deficits, outscoring the Badgers 21-10 in the second half and delivered the go-ahead touchdown with 3:08 remaining to Brian Thomas Jr.
“It’s huge,” LSU football coach Brian Kelly said of the opportunity afforded Nussmeier. “I can’t underestimate how important this win is for not only him, but our entire football team and our defense. They needed some confidence. They needed some key stops. All of this builds towards confidence and evaluating what you need to do in the off-season to be the kind of defense and offense to win a championship.”
Nussmeier, whose previous game action in 2023 amounted to mop-up duty to Daniels, displayed his big right arm throughout, the composure to twice lead LSU back from double-digit deficits and push the Tigers over the top under pressure.
LSU (10-3), which won its fourth straight game, drove 98 yards in eight plays in just over three minutes for the game-winning score. It was the first time the Tigers had driven 98 yards for a touchdown in 11 years since a game against Arkansas Nov. 29, 2013.
Nussmeier’s first pass on a drive began at his own 2-yard line was incomplete. Two carries from Josh Williams resulted in 11 yards and a first down to Wisconsin’s 13.
“I mean, it is what it is,” Nussmeier said of the drive. “You’ve got to do what you got to do in a football game. Doesn’t matter if you have to start from the one, two, get the ball at the 30, you just stick to the process. You go play by play, do the right things, move the chains, move the chains, put the ball in the end zone.”
Following another incomplete pass on first down, LSU’s scoring opportunity took off when Nussmeier connected on a 37-yard completion on a nice adjustment from Kyren Lacy to midfield. A 43-yard completion from Nussmeier to Chris Hilton Jr. reached the Badgers’ 7.
Williams picked up three yards on first down and the connection of Nussmeier to Thomas worked for a second time for a touchdown – this time a 4-yard score with 3:08 remaining.
“Look, he hasn’t had many of those rehearsed situations,” Kelly said. “I think our two-minute drill puts him on the 35-yard line with less than two minutes to go in the game, he’s going against his own teammates. This is a little bit different. 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.”
LSU entered the game with lofty numbers on the offensive of the football.
With Daniels operating out of shotgun formation, the Tigers led the nation in scoring (46.4) and total offense (547.8) and fourth in passing offense (334.2).
LSU punted on three of its first four series with Nussmeier taking over for Daniels and another series ended on downs. It was only the second time this season, and first since the Week 4 against Arkansas, the Tigers had not scored in the first quarter.
The Tigers responded from a 14-0 deficit with back-to-back touchdown drives from Nussmeier – the first of which was capped by Harold Perkins Jr’s. 1-yard run. Freshman running back Kaleb Jackson finished the second drive with a 12-yard scoring dash with 1:28 before halftime.
Nussmeier also encountered his lone mistake – a second-quarter interception – that enabled Wisconsin to regain a 21-14 halftime lead. The Badgers also scored on their first series of the third quarter to make it 28-14.
Nussmeier completed 68.4% of his passes (13 of 19) in the second half for 216 yards and all three of his touchdowns.
His 38-yard scoring strike to Thomas, well behind coverage, appeared to be the strike that lit LSU’s fuse. He followed that up seven minutes later with a 14-yard TD catch by Hilton near the end line that survived video review for a 28-28 deadlock with 4:44 to go in the third quarter.
Wisconsin regained a 31-28 lead with 1:18 showing in the third quarter when LSU twice had to punt before regaining possession for the go-ahead drive with 6:10 to play at its own 2-yard line.
LSU’s offense finished with 494 total yards, led by Thomas (8-98, 2 TDs), Mason Taylor (7-88) and Lacy (6-95). Biletnikoff Award finalist Malik Nabers finished with three catches for 23 yards to secure the school’s career yardage mark and sat out the last two quarters of play.
“I’m really proud of us as an offense, that doesn’t just speak to me,” Nussmeier said. “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.
“I would say it goes to my confidence,” Nussmeier said. “I would say I take pride in always being confident, always being ready. I think it’s huge for our offense to have the type of game like the way we performed today.”