HOUSTON—For 33 minutes Saturday, Wisconsin dominated a ballyhooed SEC team and looked capable of beating anybody in the nation.
Twenty-seven minutes of game time later, the Badgers lost, 28-24.
So what happened? How could a Wisconsin team whose defense controlled the line of scrimmage and whose offense ran the ball at will suddenly collapse against LSU?
Badger fans will probably point to the Tigers’ fake punt fourth down conversion as the turning point, but remember that Wisconsin made a fantastic defensive stand to end that possession, turning away a first and goal from the 8-yard line and forcing a field goal.
There was not just one single turning point in this game. Rather, it was Wisconsin’s abrupt inability to do anything on offense that gradually killed the defense and swung the tide in LSU’s favor.
Excluding Wisconsin’s kneel down to end the first half, the team’s first nine drives led to 24 points on four scoring trips.
Though they punted five times, the Badgers still racked up 290 total yards and held nearly a seven-minute advantage in time of possession. The meltdown began with 12:24 left in the third quarter.
From that point, Wisconsin ran 20 plays for just 33 yards, including a 5-yard false start penalty, and threw two interceptions.
The Badgers held the ball for just 8:06 and recorded only two first downs, both of which came after LSU had already taken the lead. Not exactly a recipe for success.
In his first start at quarterback since 2012, Tanner McEvoy was… well he was not good. McEvoy went 8-24 (a fairly below-average 33 percent completion rate) for 50 yards and two picks.
Worse, he averaged a pitiful 2.1 yards per attempt. Researchers at Cold Hard Football Facts have shown multiple times that yards per attempt has the strongest correlation with a quarterback’s winning percentage, rather than common stats like passing yards or touchdowns.
In the first half, McEvoy was consistently out of sync throwing the deep ball to receivers like Reggie Love, who beat the defense several times.
McEvoy was just 5-13 for 33 yards but did total 28 yards on the ground through four carries.
His athleticism allowed Wisconsin to run several read option looks, making him a mismatch for LSU. Once the defense neutralized the running threat and forced McEvoy to pass, however, things got ugly.
Meanwhile, there was the devastating absence of Melvin Gordon in the second half. The preseason Heisman candidate had 13 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown in the first half and ripped off a 63-yard gain to begin the third quarter.
He had just three more carries after that.
After the game, Gordon, Corey Clement and head coach Gary Andersen said that Gordon was not injured. Though there were few details given, Clement gave the most information intially when he chalked Gordon’s lack of carries up to “coach’s choice.”
“There was a little bit of a scenario with Melvin Gordon being completely ready to go at halftime, but he came out on his own, and he seemed to be okay,” said Andersen after the game, a truly cryptic response.
However, Andersen said Monday that Gordon sustained a hip flexor injury at the end of the first half. The star running back is expected to return for the Western Illinois game.
Regardless of the reason, not having Gordon in the game was a killer for the Badgers.
The coaches repeatedly said this summer that they want to split time between the two talented backs, but Gordon is the clear starter here, and relying on the sophomore Clement to salvage the crumbling offense was probably asking too much.
Wisconsin’s anemic second- half offense put far too much burden on the defense.
Forced to replace its entire starting front seven from last season, Wisconsin was decimated with key injuries to starters Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring.
Zagzebski was immobilized and carted off on a stretcher in the first quarter and Herring hobbled off on the final play of the third with a knee injury, forcing redshirt freshman Alec James and redshirt sophomore Arthur Goldberg to replace them.
Through the first three quarters, LSU averaged just 1.7 yards on 29 carries. In the fourth quarter alone, the Tigers had 18 rushes for 77 yards, an average of 4.3 yards per carry.
The departures of Zagzebski and particularly Herring were crushing blows to a rebuilt defensive line. No longer could the unit stop the run or get pressure on quarterback Anthony Jennings. Jennings completed just two passes in the fourth, but those went for 27 and 36 yards.
Regardless, every team must deal with injuries. The Badgers needed to tackle better and get off the field on third down, as the Tigers converted five of nine third-down attempts in the second half.
But it was the offense that let this game slip away. Up by 17 points in the second half with an offense that relies on a dynamic rushing attack to wear down opponents and milk the clock, Wisconsin blew an opportunity to pick up a signature win and become a national contender.
Instead, it’s just another example of the Badgers’ recent inability to win one-possession games.