You never quite know what you’ll get in the first game of the season. For LSU and Les Miles, it’s always been a mixed bag to start. Even in the 2011 blow out of Oregon, Jarrett Lee passed for under 150 yards and barely completed 50% of his passes.
The game Saturday was no different. It was quite literally a tale of two halves. In the first, LSU’s offense was lifeless. The Wisconsin front seven, which wasn’t supposed to be anything to write home about, stifled the LSU run game to the tune of under 50 yards before the half. Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator used a variety of pre-snap shifts and stunts to keep the offensive line off-kilter, which was exacerbated by poor communication and missed assignments.
The tale of the first half for LSU was the lack of a run game, caused by an offensive line that couldn’t find it’s comfort zone. No LSU running back found any daylight & Anthony Jennings was never comfortable in the pocket on his throws. In Leonard Fournette’s debut on offense, he carried it for just 10 yards on 8 touches for the game.
Jennings’ beginning to the game was inauspicious as well. His screen throws were consistently errant & save for a beautiful deep ball to Travin Dural, was largely ineffectual in the passing game. By the middle of the second quarter, many including myself were clamoring to see Brandon Harris due to the offensive stall. Harris wasn’t any more effective, as he was sacked & gained no yards on his other 2 plays. With the line not holding back the Badgers, it didn’t matter which quarterback was in the game.
Fueled by Heisman-candidate Melvin Gordon, the Badger offense was able to run the score to 17-7 by the half. Quarterback Tanner McEvoy, while also ineffective in the passing game, was doing enough to keep the Wisconsin offense moving.
The open of the second half was no different from the first. After a head-scratching delay of game penalty on the kickoff, Gordon promptly took the first carry down inside the LSU 10 yard line. From that point, the Badgers were able to punch it in to go up 24-7 at the open of the 3rd quarter.
But, things would be different this time. Depending on who you ask, the fake punt changed the game or it merely enabled LSU to continue a drive & the surge that would come wasn’t because of the momentum of that play. Either way, Miles’ timely gamble lead to 3 points for LSU, making the score 24-10 and bringing the game within two scores.
From that point, the LSU defense was spectacular. Of the 318 yards Wisconsin gained in the game, only 103 came in the second half & most of that on their first drive. The Badgers had only 6 positive yardage plays in the second half. The LSU secondary was unbreakable, led by stellar play from the Jalens, Mills & Collins. Jalen Collins probably had the best game of his LSU career, giving substance to the talk that he might have actually outplayed Rashard Robinson in fall camp. Freshman Devin Godchaux provided great depth for the defensive line interior & played a significant number of snaps. The linebackers, led by Kwon Alexander, swarmed to the ball & shut off the outside lanes for Wisconsin’s backs. The Tiger defense had returned to form.
Not only was the defense finding it’s way, but the LSU offense found it’s rhythm. By spreading out the Wisconsin defense (and aided by two injuries to their defensive line) LSU was able to generate huge runs with Kenny Hilliard & Anthony Jennings was effective in his passing.
Jennings still found trouble in the screen game, but he completed 4-6 passes in the second half, including deep balls to Travin Dural & a beautiful pass & catch to John Diarse, who rumbled to a touchdown that brought the game within 3 points. His play improved dramatically as the game wore on & even though the competition is still open, he’s obviously LSU’s top passer at the moment.
The game was imperfect by any measure, but against a ranked opponent on a neutral site to open the season, it should be expected. LSU has plenty of things to work on as they move into a 3-game stretch of cupcakes, but the way the team responded in the second half is encouraging. We saw a young team settle in & play smarter football. Once LSU had a plan for the Wisconsin run game (which was also aided by the noted absence of Melvin Gordon), the defense was impenetrable. For all the talk of LSU’s quarterbacks, Wisconsin’s McEvoy was awful, completing just 8 of 24 passes.
The line play will continue to improve, which will help the running backs gain their footing & also help Anthony Jennings get more comfortable in the pocket. It was a well-coached game for LSU that ended with victory. Now, LSU can work on things that didn’t work over the next three weeks and be prepared for the SEC schedule.