HOUSTON -- The game turned -- and isn't this always the case for LSU under Les Miles? -- with a bold call on special teams.
The game ended -- and how many times have we seen this in recent years? -- with Wisconsin falling just short of a marquee win and wondering where it all went wrong.
The No. 13 Tigers and No. 14 Badgers came into the Advocare Texas Kickoff as mystery teams because of all the new faces in key positions for both sides. But there was no mystery remaining at the end of LSU's 28-24 victory at NRG Stadium. A new season began, but these teams simply keep regurgitating their old storylines.
For the Tigers, it was another rise-from-the grave, how-did-that-happen victory under Miles, who improved to 11-0 in season openers and an impossible 22-21 when trailing in the fourth quarter.
Wisconsin led 24-7 after scoring early in the second half, and LSU looked doomed. Its offense mustered only 136 yards in the first half, with 80 of them coming on a long pass play against busted coverage for a touchdown. The Badgers were averaging more than eight yards per carry and bulldozing a Tigers defense that kept missing tackles and assignments.
Just when things appeared the bleakest, after an apparent three-and-out on LSU's first possession of the second half, Miles called for one of his patented special teams gambles. Kendell Beckwith only ran for five yards on the fake punt, but it led to a first down and eventual field goal. It also triggered a run of 21 unanswered points by the Tigers.
"I felt like we had to make a play," Miles said. "It was the right call, and it was the right time. The momentum change at that point was significant. I think our guys started feeling it."
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen disputed that the fake caused such a momentous momentum shift. After all, he said, the Badgers only gave up a field goal and still held an 11-point lead.
He might be right. Other changes happening in the game proved just as important, if not more so. For one, Melvin Gordon suddenly morphed from leading Heisman Trophy candidate to invisible man without much explanation.
Gordon opened the second half with a 63-yard burst to set up Wisconsin's final score. But from then on, Gordon received only two more carries the rest of the game and stood on the sideline at times with his helmet halfway on his head.
Andersen said Gordon had "a scenario" at halftime that made it doubtful whether the star tailback could return to the game. But he did not elaborate, and Gordon did come back late in the game to provide pass protection. Asked after the game if he tweaked anything or was injured, Gordon responded, "Nah, I was good, man. All good."
But he clearly wasn't the same, and neither was the Wisconsin offense. LSU began stacking against the run and walking its safeties down to within five yards of the line of scrimmage. First-time starting quarterback Tanner McEvoy couldn't counter and went just 8-of-24 for 50 yards and two interceptions. He finished 1-of-13 on throws of 10 yards or more, as his receivers struggled to get separation and he missed them when they were open.
Andersen said he didn't consider turning to Joel Stave -- who started every game last year and has a more accurate arm than McEvoy -- because the protection was so bad it wouldn't have mattered.
"They weren't passing too often, so that gave us the opportunity to put more people in the box," LSU linebacker D.J. Welter said. "We really benefited from that."
After a shaky start, Tigers sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings started to find his footing late, and Wisconsin's valiant defensive effort crumbled after it lost a second starting lineman to injury. LSU outgained Wisconsin 140-22 in the fourth quarter.
But what else is new? The Badgers have made a habit of doing just enough to lose in major nonconference showdowns of late, including close losses in three straight Rose Bowls against TCU, Oregon and Stanford, plus last year's bizarre ending at Arizona State.
They squandered a golden chance here to strike a blow for the Big Ten and boost the league's image, not to mention announce themselves as a College Football Playoff contender given their pillowy remaining schedule. Instead, it was more of the same.
"It was a big game for us, and we fell short," Gordon said. "Obviously, people will say Wisconsin can't win the big game. I'm sure they'll be saying that all year."
LSU's immediate outlook is murkier. Playing with scores of freshmen and sophomores and missing two starters due to suspension, the Tigers made plenty of mistakes. Highly hyped freshman running back Leonard Fournette looked more like a 19-year-old in his first college game than the reincarnation of Adrian Peterson, as he had just 18 yards on eight carries. Freshman quarterback Brandon Harris came in for one series and promptly got sacked when he failed to recognize a blitz.
But other youngsters, such as receivers Travin Dural (three catches for 151 yards) and John Diarse (who bounced off three tackles to score in the fourth quarter) and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, showed immense potential. Miles said that while there is much to fix, doing so after a victory means those issues are only "light tremors and a mild infection."
"That was our first game, and you're going to see us keep getting better and better," senior wideout Quantavius Leslie said. "Young guys can't play young in the SEC."
LSU can feel optimistic about the rest of the way, while Wisconsin must regroup. It's more SEC pride and another Big Ten slide. One team finds a way to win, while the other finds ways to lose. And the beat goes on and on and on.
For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.
Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.
With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.
Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.
Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.
Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.
Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.
Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.
But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.
Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.
We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.
Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.
How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.
Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.
Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.
Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.
HOUSTON -- Kenny Hilliard scored on a 28-yard touchdown run to cap a fourth-quarter rally for No. 13 LSU in a 28-24 win over No. 14 Wisconsin at NRG Stadium on Saturday night.
The Tigers trailed 24-21 when Jalen Mills intercepted Tanner McEvoy's pass at the LSU 47 with 11:04 left. Hilliard ran for 53 yards on the ensuing drive, capping it with a sprint through a hole on the right side.
The Tigers extended the nation's longest regular-season nonconference winning streak to 46 games after coming back from a 24-7 deficit in the fourth quarter.
The Badgers seemed to have the game in hand after Corey Clement scored in the third quarter. Colby Delahoussaye kicked two field goals and Anthony Jennings threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to John Diarse to start LSU's rally. Jennings hit Trey Quinn for a 2-point conversion to cut the deficit to three.
The No. 13 Tigers reeled off 21 unanswered points in a 28-24 win over No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday at NRG Stadium thanks to the help of some timely strong defense and three huge plays. Let’s take a look at the plays that changed the game.
A textbook comeback route turned into a huge play thanks to the tackle-breaking of LSU redshirt freshman receiver John Diarse. The LSU offensive line provided good protection, Anthony Jennings hit Diarse squarely in the chest, and the 6-foot, 210-pound Diarse did the rest, shaking off three would-be Wisconsin tacklers en route to a 35-yard touchdown on third-and-20. The Tigers went for a two-point conversion and succeeded to narrow Wisconsin’s lead to 24-21 with 12:08 to go in the fourth quarter.
On second-and-12 on the ensuing Wisconsin drive, quarterback Tanner McEvoy tried to find tight end Troy Fumagalli on the left side of the field. LSU safety Jalen Mills beat Fumagalli to the ball. The timing by Mills was perfect and he went up against a much bigger guy (Fumagalli is 6-foot-5, 246 pounds; Mills is 6-0, 194) and stole the ball away to give the Tigers the ball back with 11:26 remaining.
Hilliard to the house
LSU, which struggled to develop a consistent running game throughout the night, smelled blood and took over the line of scrimmage on the ensuing drive. With momentum shifting and Wisconsin missing two injured starters on the defensive line, the Tigers simply handed the ball to Kenny Hilliard three times, letting him and the LSU front do the rest. The third time they did, they created a big hole in the middle of the field which Hilliard sprinted right through for a 28-yard touchdown, giving the Tigers the lead with 9:41 left. Wisconsin would get the ball back, but the Tigers didn’t yield another point and escaped the Bayou City with a victory.
College Football Minute
Suspended Idaho 0 Florida 0
Final Tennessee-Martin 14 Kentucky 59 Final South Dakota State 18 24 Missouri 38 Final West Virginia 23 2 Alabama 33 Final Arkansas 21 6 Auburn 45 Final 16 Clemson 21 12 Georgia 45 Final Southern Miss 0 Mississippi State 49 Final 14 Wisconsin 24 13 LSU 28
Final 21 Texas A&M 52 9 South Carolina 28 Final Boise State 13 18 Ole Miss 35 Final Temple 37 Vanderbilt 7