The 1981 Wisconsin Badger football team welcomed number-one-ranked Michigan to Camp Randall Stadium to open their seasons. The Wolverines, which were favored by 40 points before the game, left Madison minus their ranking after the Badgers’ 21-14 win.
In the 35 years since, and perhaps in all the years before 1981, the Badgers have not had as big a season-opening win that I can recall as Saturday’s 16-14 win over fifth-ranked LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Not surprisingly LSU fans fail to see the accomplishment. Even though coach Les Miles won a national championship with former Packer quarterback Matt Flynn, Miles has been on the hot seat in Baton Rouge, and having your nonconference win streak end at 52 to an unranked team isn’t making things any cooler.
The Baton Rouge Advocate’s Scott Rabalais:
Days before the Wisconsin game, Les Miles was asked whether he would forbid his players from doing the Lambeau Leap.
Like LSU, us media types missed the mark. We should have asked if he was worried about the Lambeau flop.
On as pretty of a college football afternoon as you could ask for in early September, LSU beamed an ugly picture from Titletown to the rest of the USA.
It was, for a team purported to be a national championship contender, an embarrassing performance from the start by an offense that failed to mount any sustained scoring drives to a contemptible clothesline hit by guard Josh Boutte after a dreadfully thrown interception by Brandon Harris in the final minute.
In the end, the unranked Badgers did the Lambeau leaping after the final horn in deserved celebration of their 16-14 upset. Even though in the end LSU was within yards of being in range for a winning field-goal try, except for that boom-boom sequence in the third quarter when the Tigers took the lead, they were dominated throughout. Wisconsin took the fight to LSU all game long and should have won.
“We knew what was at stake,” said cornerback Tre’Davious White, whose 21-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third triggered LSU’s brief burst of impressive football. “Our goal is to win it all and go undefeated. It’s a hurtful feeling.”
LSU proved two things Saturday. One, it was comically over-ranked being No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll. Two, if Les Miles isn’t back in the sizzling skillet he occupied in November, he’s right next to the stove, being dusted in flour and seasoned, ready to be tossed in the oil.
“Tremendously so,” Miles said when asked how disappointed he was to lose for the first time in 43 nonconference regular-season games at LSU. “These guys had a brutal camp. They busted their tails, and we were right in position to win it.”
If you’re a longtime LSU fan, you must feel the disturbing tug of déjà vu. It’s arguably the most disappointing season opener since the 1989 Tigers, a supposed national championship contender that year, too, gave up an opening kickoff touchdown at Texas A&M and lost 28-16 en route to a 4-7 season.
This season doesn’t have to turn out to be that. Leonard Fournette is still one of the nation’s best players, though it’s worth wondering after he came out on LSU’s final drive Saturday if the ankle injury that sidelined him during preseason camp has been aggravated to a dangerous level. History points to LSU teams that have bounced back from season-opening losses to Southeastern Conference titles, 1961 and 1970 being prime examples.
Those years are also worth mentioning because it continues to look like LSU’s passing offense is stuck in those ancient times. The Tigers ranked 105th in the FBS last year in passing yards per game. In a broad sense, this means virtually everyone in America except the service academies and LSU can effectively throw the ball.
This is how a fan base — one whose legions left behind floods and traveled cross-country by the thousands to watch their Tigers play Saturday — can be so fed up with a coach who has won a national championship and 77 percent of his games. For all the talk in the offseason that LSU was going to modernize its offense, it still for the most part looked like the same team that tries to overpower opposing defense with the run and passes the ball only as a matter of necessity, not of choice.
Brandon Harris’ ability to be that passer continues to be suspect as well. He made a few nice plays, but with Fournette on the sideline after a 15-yard run to the Wisconsin 30 (a 5-yard penalty moved the ball back to the 35), Harris wheeled away from pressure and threw a wild where-was-the-receiver pass that was picked off by strong safety D’Cota Dixon.
Adding insult to injury was Boutte’s cheap clotheslining penalty as he clubbed Dixon to the turf after he jumped to his feet in celebration. Miles suggested Boutte may not have known that the play was dead, but it’s a flimsy excuse at best. A senior should have better control of his emotions.
Boutte, who was ejected and may serve a Southeastern Conference-mandated suspension, deserves to sit out more than next Saturday’s Jacksonville State game. Hopefully Miles will come to the same conclusion after he reviews a vicious hit that should in no way reflect the values of LSU’s football program.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune and States-Item’s Ron Higgins:
It was one of the most embarrassing, disappointing and inexplicable LSU football losses in the program’s 123-year history.
Scratch the “inexplicable.”
It was all explained in a brief halftime radio interview as LSU coach Les Miles was running off the field here in Saturday’s season opener at Lambeau Field. His team was trailing unranked Wisconsin 6-0 after the Tigers’ offensive juggernaut totaled 64 yards, 26 rushing and completed three passes for 38 yards.
Miles to LSU sideline reporter Gordy Rush: “We need to run the ball better. We’ve thrown the ball well.”
What is Miles’ definition of “well?” Is that is “Oh well” or “Well, hell.”
For the 30,000 Tigers’ fans who traveled more than 1,200 miles to watch No. 5 (writers)/No. 6 (coaches) LSU fall behind unranked Wisconsin 13-0 before losing 16-14, it’s more like “Well, hell no.”
Sans a couple of Tre’Davious White defensive plays, including a 21-yard TD interception return, one of the most experienced teams in college football was an absolute train wreck, a flaming wagon flying off a cliff, a grinding washing machine breaking down.
There’s no one to blame except the guy who pockets a $4.38 million annual paycheck, the person who said after nearly being fired at the end of last season he thinks his archaic offense only needs tweaking, the funny, quirky guy who annually lands top 10 recruiting classes and turns them into teams battling for minor bowl bids.
Again, when you judge Les Miles, you have to separate the person and the coach.
As a person, Miles is a gem, someone who deeply cares about his team and the city and state that has been his home since 2005. The class way he handled the last two months’ worth of tragedies in Baton Rouge, the racial tension, the police shootings, the recent flooding, can’t be disputed.
But he’s not handed a truckload of cash to be a voice of social conscience. He is being paid to win football games, especially the ones in which he has superior talent, which is most of the time.
His repeated answer to several questions from the media after Saturday’s debacle: “I’ll have to wait and see the film.”
Really, does he have to see the film to realize how unprepared his team looked?
Does he have to watch running back Derrius Guice fumble his first carry of the season and the ball is on the ground for more than two seconds with no LSU player making a move to recover it?
LSU played a Wisconsin team that had just five returning starters on each side of the ball after the Badgers lost two of their most experienced starters, one for the rest of the year and one for the remainder of his career, during preseason training camp.
Offensively, with eight returning starters, including running back Leonard Fournette, the college football’s rushing champ last year, the Tigers stumbled around against a Wisconsin defense that rarely had to change its 5-man front.
The Badgers didn’t need to make adjustments, because LSU did the same thing it has done since Miles arrived on campus – stick his offense mostly in the I-formation and run into a waiting wall of at least eight or nine defenders.
The move to put offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on the sideline and not the press box couldn’t rescue an offense that gained just 257 yards and didn’t have a drive longer than 49 yards. The next step for Cameron might be to find a TV monitor near a concession stand and call plays from there.
Honestly, it looked like no time had really passed between last season and Saturday. You have to discount LSU’s offensive explosion in the Texas Bowl against Texas Tech’s junior high defense.
The biggest disappointment was returning starting quarterback Brandon Harris. All through preseason training camp, Miles and all the key offensive playmakers raved about his poise and improved passing.
Against the Badgers, he never got in a rhythm, completing 12-of-21 passes for 131 yards, a TD and an interception at the end of each half.
The last one, though, was the killer, ending LSU’s last gasp of stealing a victory it didn’t deserve.
On first-and-15 at the Wisconsin 35 with just less than a minute to play, he spun away from pressure, rolled left and wildly fired an interception directly into the hands of the Badgers’ D’Cota Dixon.
If Harris would have thrown the ball away, LSU still had three downs and one timeout. Even at the 35, a 52-yard field goal would still have been in the wheelhouse of placekicker Colby Delahoussaye, who kicked a 50-yard game-winner at Florida two seasons ago.
LSU perhaps wouldn’t be trailing in the final 3:47 if Miles hadn’t gambled by trying to convert a fourth-and-one at the LSU 45 with 1:49 left in the first half.
His decision was senseless.
At that point, LSU’s defense had been on the field in the first half for 38 plays and just under 21 minutes. If LSU had punted, Wisconsin probably would have had to go at least 40 to 50 yards to get into field goal range instead of 25 yards. ,,,
As it happened, Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone kicked the second of his three field goals, a 48-yarder, with 54 seconds left in the half for a 6-0 lead.
Without that field goal, Wisconsin has to score a TD at the end and not have the luxury of just making a field goal for the win. …
Miles also needs to get ready, if he already isn’t, for a return to perhaps the hottest coaching seat in the nation. Within two hours, someone created a GoFundMe account to raise $6 million towards buying out Miles’ contract.
Higgins’ colleague Brett Duke asks questions in photographic form:
When is a tweak not a tweak?
LSU’s offense was going to be much improved in 2016, according to Les Miles. But Wisconsin ran twice as many plays in the first half (42 to 21), had the ball more than twice as long (21:52 to 8:08) and LSU was 0-for-4 on third downs in the first half. They didn’t have a third-down conversion until the last play of the third quarter. Lourdes has more conversions in an afternoon and they’re considered miracles.
How do you know LSU’s in trouble?
When Leonard Fournette’s best play of a half is a tackle, the Tigers are doomed. His lunging takedown of Wisconsin DB Derrick Tindal after his first-half-ending interception may have saved LSU from an even deeper early hole.
Does Les Miles remember how it feels?
A number of significant winning streaks are over for LSU and Les Miles. LSU had the longest non-conference, regular-season winning streak in FBS history with 52 straight; the Tigers last such loss was in 2002 to Virginia Tech in the season opener. Miles himself hadn’t lost a non-conference regular season game in 50 outings, which includes 8 wins at Oklahoma State. That was before Lance Armstrong stopped winning the Tour de France and a hanging chad became a thing.
Apparently this is how it goes in the world of Really Big Time College Football. Alabama fans will probably start yelling for Nick Saban’s head should he fail to win the next couple of national championships. Ohio State fans ran John Cooper out of town for only winning one Rose Bowl. Your opponent didn’t beat you; you lost.
Or maybe Sean Keeler has it right:
The prevailing narrative is that LSU choked on the big stage up North, that they lost their mojo, and – in a staggeringly dumb clothesline of defenseless Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon by senior guard Josh Boutte at the end of the game – their cool.
Here’s another thought, though:
What if the Badgers are for real?
What if Others Receiving Votes 16, Sleeper Pick To Reach The College Football Playoff 14 said more about the scrappy little underdogs in red?
Remember them? The ones who, in their last two games against old-money USC and title hopefuls LSU, have collected five sacks, three interceptions and held a pair of blue bloods to 326 and 257 total yards, respectively?
The ones who gave up just 35 first-half yards Saturday to an NFL tailback in an NFL stadium, Leonard Fournette, and just 76 yards, combined, in quarters 1, 2 and 4?
The ones who lost a two-touchdown lead in a span of about 80 seconds in the third quarter, but never backed down, never blinked?
“I think,” Dixon said, “we can be as good as we want to be.”
Before we hand Kirk Ferentz more hardware — and another lifetime extension — perhaps the path to Indianapolis for the wide-open Big Ten West runs not through Iowa City, but Madison. Unlike the Hawkeyes, the Badgers drew no favors from the dance card. And unlike the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin opens league play with the best three programs going in visits to Michigan State (Sept. 24), Michigan (Oct. 1) and Ohio State (Oct. 15) – the latter of whom spent Week 1 trying to outscore each other against poor Hawaii and Bowling Green, respectively. (The Buckeyes ‘won’ in that regard, dropping 77 points on the Falcons.)
Conventional wisdom has pegged the Badgers as a tough-luck, better-than-the-scoreboard-says seven or eight-win bunch, a scrappy collective that will probably deserve better than the cards it ends up getting dealt, a victim of the scheduling computer.
But did you see outside linebacker Vince Biegel, mohawk flowing in the summer breeze, chasing LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, getting knocked down and then rising up and somehow chasing him down again?
Did you notice Jack Cichy, aka Captain “A” gap, again trying to raise Cain up the middle by jumping the snap? Did you catch reserve linebacker Ryan Connelly, pressed into duty by an injury to Chris Orr, isolated in space on an LSU screen play designed to counter Cichy’s inside blitzes? Did you notice Connelly wrap up and turn a potentially game-breaking swing pass into a minimal gain?
Do they look like they want our pity, let alone justify it?
What if they’re for real? What if they’re spectacular?
“We set the bar,” Dixon said. “And I think you play every team the same way. I don’t think because you go from LSU to Akron to Georgia State that you play down. We take it one week at a time, and every game, every week, we (try to) win it. That’s the goal. That’s the plan.”
Of course, plans can change. Just ask the guys in the other locker room.
“It was shocking, for everybody,” LSU defensive end Lewis Neal said. “But all we can do is move forward and stay positive so we can win the SEC. Because we can’t let one loss just determine our season. It’s too early.”
Far too early. And what’s true in Baton Rouge is true in Madison, too. Akron and Georgia State don’t move the needle, but if you take your foot off the gas, even a little, an Appalachian State moment is only a sleepwalk away.
Saturday only guarantees the Badgers momentum out of the chute; playing with house money comes later, earned hand after hand, week after week.
The Southern half of the Lambeau media contingent walked away grumbling that Miles is in over his head (again), and start the funeral pyre. But what if that’s only half the story? What if he ran into a buzzsaw?
“We think highly of ourselves,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “We think we can do great things this year. And we absolutely made a statement today. We came out here, we fought hard, and I think we got what we deserved.”
To the victors go the spoils. And this spoiler just might be a hell of a lot better than anybodyoriginally thought.