HOUSTON - Instead of easing into the season with a team that lost 13 starters, head coach Gary Andersen was eager and anxious all offseason to play against No.13 LSU to find out exactly what his team was made of.
He got his answer, and the results had a familiar ring to it.
Up 17 points in a defacto road game, punishing a higher-ranked, athletic, quick, SEC team for nearly three quarters, No.14 Wisconsin let it all slip away in the final 20 minutes.
“I wouldn’t say they won that game but I’d say we probably lost that game,” said junior linebacker Joe Schobert, one of the few players to talk following another heart-tearing loss – this one a 28-24 setback to the Tigers in front of 71,599 fans at NRG Stadium.
“We were doing real good and we just made a couple of mistakes toward the end there in the second half, and they got that momentum. Sometimes that’s all you need in this sport.”
The way the final quarter played out had that all-too-familiar ring to it. Through three quarters, Wisconsin, which lost the season opener for the first time since 1997, saw its young defense play with gusto, grit and play-making ability, while the running game find the end zone three times. After Corey Clement plunged in from two-yards out to put UW up 24-7 early in the third quarter, players started admitting they were feeling pretty good about their position.
Big mistake, especially for a program that has now lost by seven points or less in 14 of its last 15 losses and continues to wilt in crunch time of big games.
“Pretty much since I’ve been here we’ve been coming up short in big games,” said running back Melvin Gordon. “It sucks. I tried to regroup the guys, but I think I started too late.”
The turning point for when it all went spiraling out of control is hard to pinpoint because blame can be placed in so many different areas. For starters, Gordon finished with a game-high 140 rushing yards on 16 carries, but only carried the ball twice after going for 63 yards on the first play of the second half.
Andersen alluded to an injury that occurred, a statement Gordon danced around by continuing to say he was fine.
“They went with Corey and um, we didn’t do what we needed to do,” said Gordon.
It might have been a moot point if Wisconsin had a semblance of a passing attack. Making his first career FBS start, McEvoy finished 8-for-24 for 50 yards, no touchdowns and two fourth-quarter interceptions that sealed the fate of the offense. In the final five drives for the offense, the Badgers registered 5, 8, minus-2, 23 and minus-2 yards.
While Andersen either inadvertently or purposefully defended McEvoy by putting onus on the receivers for running wrong routes and the offensive line – despite no sacks given up - for protection problems, McEvoy was more to the point.
“I don’t think I did very well, me being my hardest critic,” said McEvoy. “I made a few mental mistakes, but that happens and that can be the difference between winning and losing a game.”
Wisconsin’s defense dictated tempo from the start. The Badgers gave up an average of 4.5 yards per play in the first half (1.9 yards per play if LSU’s 80-yard touchdown pass is removed), brought pressures from every position and played near perfect pass defense.
UW seemed to survive after senior defensive end Konrad Zagzebski was carted off on a stretcher on the second defensive series, but finally buckled after senior defensive lineman, and team leader, Warren Herring got his right knee rolled up at the end of the third quarter. Herring left the locker on crutches with his right leg immobilized while Zagzebski was taken to the hospital before being cleared to fly home with the team.
In the final 15 minutes, Wisconsin allowed one touchdown after three players failed to tackle John Diarse on a 36-yard touchdown pass (cutting the UW lead to 24-21) and another after Kenny Hilliard scored the game winner after slicing through UW’s nickel defense nearly untouched.
After holding LSU to 225 yards on 47 plays in the first three quarters (4.8 yards per play), the Tigers gashed UW for 140 yards on 21 plays (6.7 yards per play), executing five plays over 13 yards after having only one through the first three quarters.
“That whole playmaking factor that they had,” said cornerback Darius Hillary of the difference in the second half, after a long pause. “We did the best that we could. At the end of the day they came out and they played harder.”
In the early going it was Wisconsin who was playing the hardest. Rushing five times for 70 yards on their six-play, 76-yard opening drive and capped it with their patented end around, as receiver Reggie Love took advantage of a missed assignment to go 45 yards on his second career touch.
The Badgers running game had 139 yards in the first quarter, 133 of which came off of 13 carries, LSU much-hyped run game was limited to 16 yards on 15 carries, the Badgers forced a turnover inside the LSU 35 that led to a Gordon 14-yard touchdown and forced the Tigers to punt on seven of their nine first-half drives.
But even that left a sour taste considering the offense could only put 17 points on the board and create a 10-point lead.
“We’ve got to get it done,” said Gordon. “Our defense played hard today. They played real hard, harder than most people thought they would. We came up short today as an offense.”
Put it all together and Wisconsin is once again wondering when they will be able to clear the hurdle against an elite-caliber opponent.
“When we have a team down like that, it’s always a missed opportunity,” said Schobert. ‘We played so good in the first half and then just fell a part in the second half. It’s definitely gut wrenching. You’ve just got to take it and learn from it and move on.”