Wisconsin led by 17 points with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter on Saturday night. The last time Wisconsin blew a 17-point lead that late in a game came on Sept. 27, 2008. Also puzzling: Badgers star Melvin Gordon got just three second-half carries on Saturday.
Wisconsin appeared to be on the verge of putting together one of its most significant season-opening victories in program history, only to see it all slip away in a 28-24 loss to LSU in Houston on Saturday night. The final score certainly hurts, but so do the circumstances.
Wisconsin led LSU by 17 points — 24-7 — with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter. The last time UW blew a 17-point lead that late in a game came on Sept. 27, 2008 against Michigan.
The result means Wisconsin loses its first season opener since 1997. It also means the Badgers’ opportunity to play in the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff is in serious jeopardy before September even arrives. UW obviously has a favorable schedule the rest of the way, but Saturday night provided the Badgers’ best chance to make a national statement against a quality opponent.
Wisconsin now has lost six consecutive games against power-five conference opponents outside of the Big Ten. Here are five things we learned from the Badgers’ first game of the season:
1. Tanner McEvoy has a ways to go at quarterback
Wisconsin’s coaching staff made a commitment to a quarterback that provided the more mobile threat. But, in doing so, the Badgers also cost themselves because Tanner McEvoy showed his quarterbacking skills are nowhere near where they need to be in order to succeed at the highest level.
The numbers from Saturday night weren’t pretty. McEvoy completed 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. You can say Wisconsin’s receivers didn’t do much to gain separation on defenders — and there is plenty of validity to that argument. Badgers coach Gary Andersen himself made the argument during his postgame remarks, saying he never considered inserting backup Joel Stave into the game. Andersen also noted the protection was so poor that it wouldn’t have mattered who was playing quarterback.
McEvoy, however, looked like he simply wasn’t ready to step up in the big moment. He panicked in key situations, threw off his back foot and missed receivers on deep balls, often by 10 yards or more.
McEvoy’s first interception came at the 11:04 mark of the fourth quarter when LSU’s Jalen Mills picked him off. His intended receiver was tight end Troy Fumagalli, but McEvoy threw the ball right into his front shoulder, where Mills was running, instead of making a back-shoulder throw. Just 1 minute, 23 seconds later, LSU running back Kenny Hilliard scored a 28-yard touchdown to give LSU a 28-24 lead.
McEvoy was intercepted again later in the fourth quarter, which essentially helped to seal the game. Wisconsin had one last opportunity to win the game, but the Badgers would have needed to go 90 yards over the final 2:23.
McEvoy did finish the game with six carries for 40 yards, including a nice 22-yard pickup. But Wisconsin won’t win the important games without a more consistent deep passing attack to complement the running game.
For those curious, Stave’s fewest passing yards during a start that he finished was 106 yards against Minnesota in 2012. Last season, he averaged 191.8 passing yards per game.
2. The running game is still the offense’s biggest strength
Did anybody think this would be any different? With Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement in the backfield, Wisconsin was sure to have some electrifying plays, and Gordon certainly didn’t disappoint.
Gordon carried the ball 16 times for 140 yards with one touchdown. He also had a nice 63-yard burst through the middle in the third quarter that helped set up Clement’s 2-yard touchdown run, which put Wisconsin ahead 24-7.
Wisconsin led the nation in runs of at least 40 yards last season, and the Badgers picked up where they left off a year ago. In addition to Gordon’s 63-yard run, receiver Reggie Love scored on a 45-yard jet sweep around the left side.
Clement finished his day with 15 carries for 45 yards, but the fact he garnered nearly as many carries as Gordon was somewhat curious. Gordon carried the ball 13 times in the first half and only three times in the second half. Andersen told reporters after the game that Gordon was not hurt, which makes the decision not to use him even more difficult to understand. Gordon had performed at an extremely high level, and he is without question one of the top running backs in college football.
Wisconsin averaged 6.9 yards per carry overall, but the Badgers’ were far less effective in the second half.
3. Secondary issues persist
We’ve seen Wisconsin have difficulties with its secondary in recent seasons, and it appears that could be an issue once again in 2014. One of the most glaring mistakes came early, when quarterback Anthony Jennings connected with Travin Dural for an 80-yard touchdown. Dural snuck behind true freshman safety Lubern Figaro and sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton to give LSU its only touchdown of the first half.
Near the end of the half, No. 3 cornerback Devin Gaulden was flagged for a 15-yard pass interference. And later in the game, Dural beat cornerback Darius Hillary down the right sideline for 44 yards on a perfectly thrown pass from Jennings.
Wisconsin’s coverage also was absolutely awful when Jennings found receiver John Diarse for a 35-yard touchdown on third-and-21 that trimmed the LSU deficit to 24-21 in the fourth quarter. Gaulden and linebacker Joe Schobert collided and missed Diarse, and then Figaro missed a tackle as well. Hillary’s last-gasp attempt fell short, and Diarse scooted into the end zone.
4. Field goal kicking looks darn good
Remember when Badgers fans would bite their nails over a routine 35-yard field goal, just hoping a kicker could split the uprights? Well, those days seem all but over. True freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone, on the biggest stage of his young career, proved himself to be the real deal.
Gaglianone buried a 51-yard field goal to give Wisconsin a 10-0 lead with 5:07 left in the first quarter. And he added a nifty little celebratory dance with fellow kicker Andrew Endicott afterward for good measure. Gaglianone has swagger and one of the best legs in the country, which is a much-needed change for the Badgers.
Last season, Wisconsin made 14 of 21 field-goal attempts, which ranked 10th out of 12 Big Ten teams in field-goal accuracy rate (66.7 percent).
Gaglianone’s kick represented the first 50-yard kick since Phillip Welch’s on Oct. 10, 2009. It also was the longest made field goal try since Welch’s 57-yarder on Sept. 12, 2009.
5. Injuries leave defensive line thin
Wisconsin’s defensive line was not particularly deep to begin with, but losing the two most experienced players proved to be a devastating blow Saturday night. First, defensive end Konrad Zagzebski left the game on a stretcher after tailback Kenny Hilliard’s knee hit him on the head.
Later in the game, nose guard Warren Herring limped off the field after getting rolled up during a play with a teammate. He sustained a right knee injury and spent the fourth quarter on the sideline with ice on his knee.
Herring and Zagzebski have combined to play in 67 career games for the Badgers, and their prolonged absence would create an incredibly difficult challenge. Wisconsin will have to hope both players are able to return relatively soon.