HOUSTON - When sophomore running back Corey Clement scored a two-yard touchdown early in the third quarter to put Wisconsin up 24-7, it seemed as if the Badgers were well on their way to picking up a monumental win for not only their football program, but for the Big Ten as a whole.
But a fake punt by LSU and an injury to UW redshirt senior nose guard Warren Herring changed everything, as the Tigers (1-0) flipped the script in the second half to erase the 17-point deficit and defeat Wisconsin (0-1) 28-24 in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff at NRG Stadium.
The Badgers came flying out of the gates to start the game, taking a 7-0 lead with 9:05 left in the first quarter on a 45-yard jet sweep touchdown run by sophomore wide receiver Reggie Love. They extended that lead to 10-0 under four minutes later when freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone drilled a 51-yard field goal.
LSU answered back immediately on an 80-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings to sophomore wide receiver Travin Dural, which came just 20 seconds after Gaglianone’s field goal.
A 14-yard touchdown run by redshirt junior Melvin Gordon midway through the second quarter gave Wisconsin a 17-7 advantage at halftime, and the Badgers picked up right where they left off to start the second half.
Gordon ran for 63 yards on UW’s first play of the third quarter, helping set up Clement’s touchdown run.
However, that drive turned out to be the end of Wisconsin’s success on offense.
On the ensuing LSU possession, head coach Les Miles, who is well known for his risk-taking tendencies, called a fake punt with his team facing 4th and four at their own 43-yard line. The gamble paid off, and the Tigers ended up getting field goals on back-to-back possessions.
But the real turning point for the Badgers came near the end of the third quarter, when Herring went down with a knee injury. With Herring and redshirt senior defensive end Konrad Zagzebski, who was carted off the field in the first quarter with a neck injury, both out of the game, the UW front seven suddenly was unable to stop LSU’s rushing attack after stifling it throughout the first half.
The Tigers scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 28-yard touchdown run by senior running back Kenny Hilliard with 9:41 remaining to give them the lead for the first time in the game.
Though the injuries to Herring and Zagzebski certainly hurt, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen wasn’t ready to use it as an excuse for his team’s collapse.
“I guess we could use that as a crutch if we wanted to, but we’ve got enough kids to go out and play,” Andersen said. “It was very tough to lose Warren and Zags; they’re leaders, they’re great football players and I hope we get them back soon.”
The go-ahead touchdown was set up when UW redshirt junior quarterback Tanner McEvoy threw his first of two fourth-quarter interceptions. McEvoy had a disastrous outing in his first start as the Badgers’ quarterback, completing just 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards.
“This was his first start, his first big game against an SEC opponent,” Clement said. “I believe he stuck it out very strongly, and he’ll have better moments in our next games.”
But perhaps the most frustrating part of Wisconsin’s struggles for Badgers fans was the notable absence of Gordon for much of the second half. Gordon ran for 146 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries during the game, but only got three more touches after his 63-yard run on UW’s first drive of the third quarter.
Though many speculated that Gordon may have suffered an injury early in the second half, Andersen shot down that rumor in their postgame interviews, even saying he “didn’t know” why Gordon only had four rushes in the second half.
“Coaches’ choice, Melvin was perfectly fine,” Clement said. “I can’t really say anything about that. Melvin has his time and I have my time, and I just tried to make the most out of my opportunities.”
The second-half collapse was both frustrating and extremely disappointing for Wisconsin, who appeared to be on the verge of picking up one of the biggest non-conference wins in school history.
Instead, LSU extended the country’s longest regular season, non-conference winning streak to 46 games, sending the Badgers home from Houston with their first loss in a season opener since 1998.
“I think once [LSU] started coming back, I felt like some of us were hanging our heads; that’s where us leaders really have to come in and motivate the guys,” redshirt senior linebacker Marcus Trotter said. “It’s a four quarter game and we have to be consistent every play to be successful.”