Houston — Fans and media essentially buried No. 13 LSU less than three minutes into the second half of Saturday’s showdown with No. 14 Wisconsin.
The Badgers had just pulled ahead by 17 after a two-yard touchdown run by Corey Clement, set up by a 63-yard dash by Melvin Gordon on the first play of the half. Wisconsin had outran LSU to that point 248-16, and the Tigers showed few signs of the team most expected them to be.
Then the lights finally came on. The Tigers scored in each of their next four possessions, eventually taking their first lead of the game with less than 10 minutes to play.
LSU clung to that advantage and ultimately pulled out a 28-24 victory to open the 2014 season at NRG Stadium.
“We’re a blue collar team that will fight like hell and scrap you,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “This was one of those times.”
Facing a 4th-and-4 from their own 43-yard line, the Tigers went with a fake punt, a desperate attempt to cut into the 17-point deficit. Kendell Beckwith converted the first down, and LSU tacked on a field goal after the drive stalled inside the red zone.
It was the first points LSU scored since late in the first quarter, but the Tigers rolled from there.
LSU got another field goal in its next possession, and then finally found the end zone again the next time they got the ball. After the defense forced their second consecutive three-and-out, the Tigers worked it near midfield before Anthony Jennings connected with Travin Dural for a 27-yard gain.
Disaster nearly struck on the next play though when Jennings’ errant pitch to Leonard Fournette resulted in a 10-yard loss. After an incomplete pass, Jennings found John Diarse along the right sideline. He shed a pair of tackles and barreled into the end zone for his first career touchdown, and the successful two-point conversion cut the deficit to just three.
“We knew we were a better team than how we played in the first half,” Diarse said. “At halftime, it clicked. It was time to turn it on…We just picked it up and turned it up a notch.”
Wisconsin ran just one play on its next drive before a Tanner McEvoy pass fell into Jalen Mills’ hands. That epitomized what was a disastrous half for the Wisconsin offense, a stark contrast from how the Badgers opened the game.
Following that touchdown drive to start the second half, Wisconsin amassed just 32 yards of offense. Melvin Gordon, who had racked up 139 rushing yards in his previous 13 carries, picked up just one more yard on three attempts the rest of the way.
He reportedly tweaked his hamstring on that 63-yard run early in the third quarter, though Wisconsin coach Gary Anderson refused to confirm the injury. Wisconsin’s offensive ineptitude needed no confirmation though.
The night was particularly rough on McEvoy, who’d earned the starting job over incumbent Joel Stave during the preseason. McEvoy completed just eight of his 24 passes for 50 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions. That pick by Mills with about 11 minutes left in the game set up the go-ahead score.
“I saw it [from the beginning],” Mills said. “I had just told Coach Miles, Coach Frank [Wilson] and the whole offensive line that I was going to get them the ball. We needed a big play from the defense. We were struggling at first. Then I just came through.”
Starting at their own 47-yard line, the Tigers turned to Kenny Hilliard to carry the offense. He picked up 17 yards on his first carry of the drive, eight more on the next. Then he darted up the middle, untouched for a 28-yard touchdown that gave LSU its first lead of the season.
“We never doubted it,” Hilliard said. “We stayed up and God was able to open doors for us. We came out and had a lot more firepower in the second half.”
It was a banner day for Hilliard, who led the team with 110 yards rushing, 99 of which came in the second half.
LSU’s renewed ability to run the ball took a significant amount of pressure off Jennings, who struggled early in the second start of his career. Jennings was 5-for-15 at halftime. He did have 120 yards passing, but a large chunk of that came on an 80-yard touchdown pass to Dural that hardly went according to plan.
Jennings settled down somewhat in the second half. He finished the game with 239 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns. Miles said he “managed the game” better as it progressed, routinely finding Dural for big gains as he finished with 151 yards receiving on three catches.
“This team has a lot of fight in it,” Jennings said. “These guys around me don’t have any quit in them…We were calm and knew we were going to do good things coming out of halftime.”
LSU will still have its share of skeptics after eking out this victory, just don’t count them out until the clock winds down.
“We can be better,” Miles said. “This team can take this experience and realize that to do the things we want to do, to have the ambition we really have, we’re going to have to play better. The good news is after victory, it’s a lot more fun to go to work.”
LSU rallies past Wisconsin, 28-24
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