Bart Houston was about as expected in the season opener – mostly good with some hair-pulling moments. It was a wave of emotions that one would expect with a first-time starter. His final stat line (19-for-31 for 205 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions) doesn’t look all that great, but there were many moments of brightness.
Houston looked in full command early by going 6-for-8 for 63 yards in the first quarter. On the game’s third drive, Houston hit Rob Wheelwright for 13 yards on third-and-6, his best of the four completions He also brought some elusiveness to the table, not afraid to tuck the ball and run – not to mention put his head down – for an opportunity to move the chains. His 9-yard run on second-and-8 split the defense and got UW a first down at the 11.
Unfortunately, UW came away empty on the drive when Houston underthrew a pass in triple coverage in the end zone, leading to his first interception. On two of the last three drives of the half, however, Houston helped get UW into field goal position that registered points.
UW had a prime opportunity to stick a dagger into LSU late in the third quarter when taking over on its own 4 up 13-0. But after the running game got UW into a third-and-4, Houston starred down Wheelwright and had the route jumped for a 21-yard pick-six interception. That started a three possession funk where the offense managed only 49 yards on 13 plays.
When he was needed, Houston did deliver. Down one with 8:14 to go, Houston went 3-for-3 on an eight-play drive that led to the winning field goal. His 31 pass attempts are the most in an opening start since Dustin Sherer hit 17 of 34 completions in a loss at Iowa on Oct. 18, 2008.
To his credit, the Badgers steadily moved the ball to chew up clock and get in position to score points. Wisconsin only had three drives of three plays or less: two ended in turnovers and one ended with three kneel downs.
I almost forgot what Corey Clement looked like as a healthy tailback. Playing at 100 percent for the first time since midseason 2014, not to mention the first time as the No.1 back, Clement was aggressive hitting the LSU’s defensive front and pounded out the yardage.
His 5-yard run was a thing of beauty, cutting to his right to avoid a defender and then fought like hell to get the ball to the goal line. After initially being ruled down, the game’s lone video replay rewarded him.
Clement took a beating with his career-high 21 carries, but he proudly pronounced himself 100 percent healthy post game. That’s a huge credit to the work and the prehab he had done in the offseason.
Although running back coach John Settle said Taiwan Deal was going to be Wisconsin’s No.2 back, senior Dare Ogunbowale had a heavy workload and delivered with a 4.9 yards average on his nine carries, including the team’s longest run of nine.
As a group Wisconsin delivered 3.2 yards per rush, with the best three plays being the final three minus-2 yard rushes on the kneel downs.
The tight ends were terrific, mainly Troy Fumagalli and his ability to deliver big catches when the offense needed him in third-down situations. As I wrote about Sunday, Fumagalli had at least one catch on three of UW’s scoring drives and his first six catches all went for first downs. The one that didn’t was an 11-yard gain on UW’s final scoring drive, getting them out of a first-and-20 situation.
While outside linebacker Arden Key got the better of him on a rush that led to a sack and stunted a drive, Fumagalli zipped passed him for a 27-yard gain that led to UW’s only touchdown. The route was run to perfection, lined up on the right, running through traffic in the middle of the field and turning up at the hash marks, in full sprint before Key knew what happened.
It’s a small sample size, but Wisconsin’s receivers still have steps they needs to make to become a full impact group. Wheelwright had some terrific catches early, but had a touchdown catch go off his hands in the second quarter (UW settled for a field goal) and had a wide-open drop in the third quarter that would have given the Badgers a big gain in LSU territory.
Jazz Peavy was held quiet with one catch for one yard and one drop but didn’t do anything as egregious as George Rushing. On his second catch, Rushing got greedy after getting a first down, choosing to go for a spin move back to the center of the field instead of stepping out of bounds. The result was a fumble at UW’s 47 recovered by LSU. Two plays later, the Tigers had the lead and the momentum.
True freshman Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor both got their feet wet for Wisconsin, Cephus being split out on the first series and Taylor taking a jet sweep for a minus-1 yard carry.
Receivers were a C- but the grade gets a boost because of Fumagalli’s huge plays.
While this group entered as a somewhat veteran unit based on the games they played last season, Wisconsin’s offensive line hadn’t come close to facing a front seven like this one. After all, left tackle Ryan Ramczyk was redshirting, Michael Deiter was playing guard, Beau Benzschawel was injured and Micah Kapoi and Jacob Maxwell were on the bench.
So all things considered, this was a pretty stellar performance to pave the way for 134 rushing yards and giving up only one sack and no pressures. There were still some issues – Ramczyk started slow (and had a false start penalty that altered a red-zone drive) but got better as the game progressed; Deiter got bull rushed a handful of times from nose tackle Travonte Valentine that caused runs to break down and was penalized for an illegal block in the fourth quarter that wiped out an eight-yard run on first down that UW really needed and Jacob Maxwell had a personal foul/hands to the face penalty that wiped out a first down on third down.
Consider the opening opponent, the group held up well.
Leonard Fournette was going to get his yards, so the key for Wisconsin was to limit his chunk plays and keep Brandon Harris under duress. Check and check.
UW’s front delivered five of the tackles on Fournette’s 23 carries, not to mention countless plays opening up alleys for the linebackers. Fournette had 138 yards but 30 came on one rush and none ended in the end zone.
With LSU working out two new tackles, Alec James was active with three tackles and a sack, Chikwe Obasih had three tackles and recovered a huge fumble that led to three first-half points and Olive Sagapolu and Garrett Rand opened up alleys in the middle routinely for Jack Cichy and Ryan Connelly, evident by their tackle numbers.
Wisconsin’s front forced LSU to go three-and-out on its only two drives of the first quarter, the last one ended with end Conor Sheehy in hot pursuit of Harris and forcing a pass to sail. The Tigers only had seven first quarter yards.
The leading tackler for Wisconsin, Cichy’s biggest play was on the drive where Fournette’s 30-yard run went to Wisconsin’s 49. LSU eventually advanced to the UW 29, until Cichy shot the A gap unblocked and blew up a play in the backfield that caused a fumble and a seven-yard loss.
One of the biggest plays in the game was delivered by Ryan Connelly, who more than stepped up for the injured Chris Orr. Looking to pad their one-point lead, LSU appeared to perfectly set up a screen to Fournette, but Connelly swept past the pulling center and stopped the tailback five yards short of the marker. LSU punted and UW went ahead for good on the next drive.
Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt also took advantage of the young tackles, delivering constant pressures on Harris. Watt delivered pressures consistently and forced a number of Fournette runs inside to the help defense. Biegel had one sack and the key pressure to end the game, forcing Harris to step up in the pocket and throw without setting his feet.
As expected, this group will be the pulse of the defense.
With a talented front doing its job, a young secondary reaped the benefits. Derrick Tindal and D’Cota Dixon each registered interceptions to end halves, keeping LSU off the scoreboard. Tindal also had a pass breakup and the unit’s only penalty, showing that his best football is ahead of him.
Alabama got the better of Leo Musso a year ago, but the senior’s growth was evident with five tackles and a solo stop on Fournette on the final drive. If Musso gets bowled over, LSU is easily in field goal range … or worse.
Senior Sojourn Shelton answered his challenged by playing tough, aggressive coverage on Malachi Dupree, who finished with three catches for 24 yards.
Kudos as well Arrington Farrar forcing a fumble in the second quarter led to Obasih’s recovery and three points.
UW allowed only one pass play over 20 yards, the wheel route to Fournette when he took advantage of a gap along the sideline with the Badgers in single coverage with a safety over top. Other than that, UW didn’t give LSU much.
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst had talked all offseason about the need to improve all four special teams units. Saturday was a good first step.
The kicking units were tremendous. Rafael Gaglianone was the conference’s special teams player of the week after drilling field goals of 30, 48 and 47, showing no problems with new holder Connor Allen. The kickoff unit was tremendous thanks to P.J. Rosowski, who averaged 65 yards on his three kickoffs. When returner Derrius Guice got the itch to return a kick from the end zone, UW stopped him at the 17. Andrew Endicott’s only kickoff went 42 yards to the LSU 23, but an illegal block penalty moved them to the 18.
Somewhat surprisingly, Rosowski also handled the punts. Despite freshman Anthony Lotti being listed first on the depth chart (he didn’t play), Rosowki averaged 40.8 yards on his four punts – his first being a 22-yard shank the two of the next three going over 50 yards. He also put two inside the 20. Only one punt was returned, and Vince Biegel, Garrett Dooley and Natrell Jamerson all were involved in limiting the return to three yards,
Wisconsin was well prepared on both sides of the ball to attack the weaknesses of LSU, a reason that the Badgers outplayed the Tigers in all three phases for the vast majority of the game. Chryst’s decision to go for the field goal instead of throw the ball for a first down showed his trust in his kicker and that he has a solid pulse of the team. If Wilcox’s defense could do that against LSU, I’m anxious to see what he can do about Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Badgers committed only five penalties in the season opener, a sign of a well-coached, discipline team.