GREEN BAY – Needing to fill the void at defensive coordinator left by Dave Aranda’s departure to LSU, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst took over three weeks to make sure the person he hired would be the right fit. He settled on Justin Wilcox, recently fired by USC but not short on experience with stops at multiple power-five conference schools.
Sometime between their initial meetings and kickoff of the season opener, Chryst delivered a simple message to his assistant.
“I said the one thing you’ll like about this group of guys, they’ll be ready to play,” Chryst said. “I thought that guys were ready.”
Boy were they ever. The buildup to the first Lambeau Field College Classic lived up to the hype thanks to Wisconsin’s stifling defensive performance, keeping them in the game early and registering the big stop late to register an impressive come-from-behind 16-14 victory over No.5 LSU.
“I think Justin put a great defensive game plan in,” senior linebacker Vince Biegel said. “It was for us just continue to go out there and executing.”
Wisconsin (1-0) hurdled the first major road block on its challenging schedule thanks to a gritty defensive effort that frustrated and confused LSU on multiple levels. The Tigers struggled running the ball (just 3.2 yards on 42 attempts), delivered few gashes through the air and scored their only two touchdowns because of UW’s offensive miscues.
It’s a reason the Badgers’ 73 plays outgained LSU’s 50 plays 339-to-257, and none of the Tigers’ 12 drives went more than 50 yards.
“We knew they would take some shots and definitely come out running the ball first,” said sophomore strong safety D'Cota Dixon, who delivered the game-clinching interception with 57 seconds left. “Coach Wilcox just executed on his play calling, and I think our defense executed on our job.”
Wisconsin’s offense left a multitude of points on the field in the first half but still led 6-0 because the Badgers’ defense was swarming and limited the Tigers to 64 yards on 21 plays.
The Badgers forced a pair of turnovers, the first being a fumble at the LSU 36 that safety Arrington Farrar poked out from tailback Derrius Guice’s hands. That helped UW score its first points on a 30-yard field goal.
On the ensuing drive, the Badgers twice stymied junior tailback Leonard Fournette in short-yardage runs, forcing a turnover on downs near midfield that led to another three points for the offense.
Fournette did get his yards, finishing with 176 total and 138 on the ground, but the Badgers didn’t let him come close to the end zone.
“Leonard Fournette is a great back, so it honestly just feels great,” Dixon said. “We just played good team defense and just executed our jobs.”
The missed opportunities appeared to take a big bite out of Wisconsin when cornerback Tre’Davious White registered a pick-six interception off senior quarterback Bart Houston and scored another touchdown in a 67 second stretch in the third quarter, just three plays after receiver George Rushing fumbled near midfield.
It left the older players thinking back to when Wisconsin blew a 24-7 third quarter lead in a 28-24 loss to LSU in Houston.
“I was like, “Oh my gosh, don’t let this happen again,’” Dixon said.
“I was like, ‘What are we doing?’” tailback Corey Clement added.
Only different between then and now was the defense was better and deeper. UW still had to deal with injuries (Ryan Connelly stepped in when Chris Orr was knocked on with a right leg injury the first play of the game), but the Badgers’ steady rotation on the defensive line kept alleys open for the linebackers.
It was critical depth that opened things up for a psycho.
After the offense imploded following their 13-0 lead, registering only 49 yards on its next four series that included the two turnovers, Houston and the offense marched 48 yards in eight plays and set up Rafael Gaglianone’s third made field goal – this one from 47 - to retake the lead with 3:47 remaining.
With LSU making its final march, getting to the UW 30-yard line with just over a minute to go, Wilcox radioed in Biegel’s favorite blitz call, ‘psycho track.’ Lined up over the tight end, who released down field, Biegel was unblocked by left tackle K.J. Malone to give him a free run at Harris. And while Harris evaded the sack, he wasn’t able to set his foot and power into the throw, resulting in an underthrown pass that landed into Dixon’s waiting arms.
“I actually thought it was a screen at first because I was unblocked so much,” Biegel said. “Give D’Cota credit, he was exactly where he was supposed to be at the right time.”
With a difficult conference slate still two weeks away, many inside the victorious locker room were blunt that there’s still a lot of work to do to get ready for a vicious slate of games. One thing that the Badgers can check off the list now is the knowledge that their youthful group can compete with anybody.
“I want them to enjoy this,” Chryst said. “The opportunity we had because of this game, I wanted them to enjoy it. But it’s also a great challenge for this team. What we do with this and how we move forward, they’ll define who we are as a team this year, but we certainly wanted to enjoy this day and all that went into it.
“Far from perfect, but they just kept playing and found ways to make plays.”