By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Throughout a brutal summer of racial strife and natural disaster, the city of Baton Rouge looked forward to LSU’s ultra-hyped season and championship aspirations as a beacon of hope.
Both sustained substantial and shocking body blows Saturday afternoon on the not-yet-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
No. 5 LSU, a trendy pick to make a run to the CFB Playoffs this season, fell 16-14 to unranked Wisconsin after Badger kicker Rafael Gagliannone drilled a 46-yard game-winning field goal with under four minutes to play.
“We didn’t see this coming at all,” a dejected Tre’Davious White said. “Our goal is to win it all. The guys in the locker room are hurting so bad.”
LSU (0-1) had a chance to retake the lead, marching into Wisconsin (1-0) territory in the game’s final minutes. But one penalty after Heisman-hopeful Leonard Fournette limped off the field, appearing to reinjure his ankle, Brandon Harris evaded pressure and threw a ghastly interception — his second of the afternoon — to seal the Tigers’ fate.
The defeat, in addition to putting LSU’s playoff hopes on life support, snapped the program’s 52-game winning streak in regular season non-conference games. It’s the first time Les Miles has ever lost a season opener as LSU’s coach. Both streaks date back to a 2002 rout at the hands of Virginia Tech.
Following a popular refrain, LSU’s offense served as the obvious culprit. The Tigers accumulated just 257 total yards of offense and converted on only 2-of-10 third downs. Wisconsin held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, finishing just short of 37 minutes of possession.
“We didn’t move the football like were capable of,” Miles said, matter-of-factly.
Meanwhile, the defense provided the lone spark that nearly spurred LSU to another comeback victory over Wisconsin.
White intercepted a Bart Houston pass and raced across the field for a 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter to bring LSU within 13-7.
One drive later, White recovered a fumble caused by Donte Jackson. Harris hit Fournette for a 31-yard gain off a wheel route and, one play later, tossed a bubble screen to Travin Dural that the senior wideout turned into a 10-yard touchdown after making a cornerback miss.
“I felt like that was what the team needed at the time,” White said. “Felt the game was changing.”
“Big players make big plays,” defensive end Lewis Neal added. “That was the kind of play we needed.”
But it wouldn’t be enough. LSU didn’t score a single point that wasn’t set up by or directly the result of those two takeaways.
LSU failed to extend its lead, punting on its next two drives, and given one last opportunity, Houston, a fifth-year senior making his first collegiate start, delivered for the Badgers.
Thanks largely to two length completions to tight end Troy Fumagalli, who torched the Tigers for 100 yards on seven grabs, Wisconsin moved across midfield before settling for a length kick.
The ensuing field goal produced the decisive score, but the Tigers started behind the eight-ball hours earlier thanks to coming out the gate as sluggish as could be.
LSU’s reshuffled offensive line failed to generate any push, which both suffocated the ground game and created pressure on Harris, who finished the first half 3-for-7 for 38 yards with one interception. Fournette, who finished with 138 carries on 23 carries, rushed 11 times for just 35 yards before halftime.
“Leonard was full speed in my mind,” Miles said, asked if the ankle injury hampered the Tiger star. “I thought he played hard.”
The margin would have been more lopsided, however, if not for some salty resolve on the part of LSU’s defense. One Badger drive ended in the red zone when Greg Gilmore pressured Wisconsin Houston, causing a hurried throw that Rickey Jefferson intercepted in the end zone.
Wisconsin eventually got on the score board in the second quarter, capitalizing on a pair of LSU turnovers.
The first, a Derrius Guice fumble, set up the Badgers at LSU’s 36-yard line. Wisconsin drove inside LSU’s 10-yard line, helped along the way by a couple missed tackles, but the drive stalled after a broken play and a pass breakup by White in the end zone. Wisconsin settled for a 30-yard field goal by Gagliannone for the first points of the game.
Harris hit Travin Dural for a first down to jump start LSU’s ensuing possession, but the momentum didn’t last long. Miles decided to keep his offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 near midfield, and the Badgers stuffed Fournette a couple feet shy of the line to gain. That led to a 48-yard Gagliannone field goal that extended the Wisconsin lead to 6-0.
“Defense played their behinds off,” Miles summarized. “They played hard for four quarters.”
Left in a precarious and unfamiliar position at 0-1, LSU must now regroup while dealing with the fact that another loss likely dashes any remaining playoff aspirations.
The Tigers return home next week to face Jacksonville State, but after that SEC play begins with a visit from Mississippi State and then a trip to the Plaines to take on Auburn.
“I don’t know how you keep them up,” Miles said of his players. “The truth is, they’re going to have to come back to work and find a resiliency.”
“It’s a process,” Pocic added. “Nobody said it was going to be easy.”