Going into the 2016 season, the schedule for the Wisconsin Badgers certainly looked be a difficult obstacle to overcome. Especially if the Badgers were hoping for lofty postseason aspirations.
For one thing, the Badgers were unranked for the first time since the 2009 season.
Add to that, Wisconsin was slated to open the season against No. 5 LSU, based on the preseason AP Top 25 rankings. If that wouldn’t be bad enough, the Badgers would open up their Big Ten season against very difficult opponents (No. 12 Michigan State, No. 7 Michigan, No.6 Ohio State and No. 17 Iowa), who were all ranked in the Top 20.
Plus, going into the opening game, LSU was riding a 52-game winning streak against non-conference opponents, which is a FBS record. That dates all the way back to 2002.
Most experts, including NFL scout Chris Landry, thought that LSU would come out the victor in he opening tilt against Wisconsin at legendary Lambeau Field.
Landry, in his preview of the LSU-Wisconsin game on LandryFootball.com, wrote this:
Despite the desire for the LSU fan base to see an “air it out passing attack”, LSU will still focus on the running game again this season, with hopefully a more efficient and effective timing passing attack to the short and middle zones of the field.
LSU passing attack centers around the play action deep vertical throw when they can move the safety from the middle of the field. LSU QB Brandon Harris has been a decent deep ball thrower and I expect some deep shots in this game.
I see LSU getting more explosive plays and pulling away in the 4th quarter. But don’t expect a lot of points unless it follows an inordinate amount of turnovers. LSU should win by 10-13 points in a low scoring affair.
Landry was certainly right about the game being a low scoring affair. There is no question that both LSU and Wisconsin have excellent defenses.
Dave Aranda is the new defensive coordinator at LSU, after spending three years at Wisconsin building one of the better defenses in the country for the Badgers. He is implementing his 3-4 scheme with the Tigers and he has plenty of talent to work with.
Speaking of working with talent, Justin Wilcox, the new defensive coordinator of the Badgers, also has some real playmakers on defense. Especially at linebacker.
Coaching played a big part in the outcome of the game on Saturday at Lambeau. Head coach Paul Chryst definitely outcoached his counterpart at LSU, Les Miles. But it was the players who did the dominating for the Badgers, even if the final score didn’t reflect that.
The Badgers had 21 first downs to 14 for the Tigers. Wisconsin also had 339 total yards, compared to 257 for LSU. The Badgers also controlled the ball for almost 37 minutes.
Landry wrote this in his review of the game:
LSU got outcoached, outplayed, and surprisingly lost to a team with more heart.
Landry also added this about the Badgers:
The team had to hear about how Dave Aranda was going to stuff the Wisconsin O, now that he’s handling the LSU D. It had to hear about how talented LSU was, about how there wasn’t a chance of winning, and it had to see that it was a double-digit dog in a home game.
LSU had the juice in the third quarter on its 14-point scoring run, but that was it. The Badgers had more energy, they played far smarter, and they figured out how to beat a far more talented team.
Going into the game, the Badgers had to be concerned about stopping running back Leonard Fournette. The talented LSU back is considered the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
The Badgers held Fournette in check in the first half, although No. 7 ended up rushing for 138 yards, but never found the end zone. That being said, Fournette set up the second LSU touchdown after a long reception on a wheel route out of the backfield.
Meanwhile, Corey Clement of the Badgers ran for 86 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
A large component in this game was the play of the quarterbacks. Brandon Harris was going into his fourth year at quarterback at LSU, while Bart Houston was starting his first game ever for the Badgers against a quality defense.
Harris was 12-of-21 for 131 yards with one touchdown pass and two picks. The second interception was very costly, as safety D’Cota Dixon sealed the win with an interception with 57 seconds left.
Houston showed a strong arm and some surprising mobility in his first ever start. No. 13 was 19-of-31 for 205 yards and two very bad interceptions. The first came when the Badgers were driving for a score in the red zone of the Tigers, while the other was a pick-six as cornerback Tre’Davious White returned an interception 21 yards for a score, as the Tiger cut a 13-0 Wisconsin lead to 13-7.
In the very next Wisconsin drive, White recovered a fumble which set up another LSU touchdown, as the the Tigers were up 14-13 just like that in a matter of a couple of minutes.
But Houston and the Badgers never let the disappointment of giving up the lead so quickly get into their heads. Houston led Wisconsin on a game-winning field drive in the fourth quarter.
Houston’s favorite target in that drive and in the game, was tight end Troy Fumagalli, who ended up with seven receptions for 100 yards.
The drive ended with kicker Rafael Gaglianone booting a clutch 47-yard field goal. Gaglianone had earlier hit field goals from 30 and 48 yards.
Gaglianone was wearing No. 27 to honor former Nebraska punter Sam Foltz, who died in a car accident in Wisconsin in July.
The Badgers then held on to the 16-14 lead, culminated by the game-winning pick by Dixon. The Wisconsin defense was outstanding the entire game. The great performance was led by the linebacking corp. T.J. Watt (seven total tackles) and Vince Biegel were constantly chasing Harris while he was going back to pass.
Biegel had a sack, while Watt came close a number of times. Jack Cichy led the Badger with eight total tackles, plus forced a fumble. Ryan Connelly played very well at inside linebacker, coming in for Chris Orr, who was injured very early in the game. Connelly had seven total tackles, including a key one on Fournette in the fourth quarter on a third down screen pass.
Bottom line, the defense of the Badgers proved to be as good as they were in 2015, if not better.
The offense of the Badgers looks to be a work in progress, but there were a lot of favorable signs looking ahead at future games.
Speaking of future games, the Badgers are no longer unranked. In the polls released on Tuesday afternoon, Wisconsin is ranked 16th in the Coaches Poll, while Bucky also moved all the way up to No. 10 in the AP Top 25 poll.
Time will tell how the Badgers will do with their daunting Big Ten schedule to begin their conference season, especially with road games at Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa.
Add in a Saturday night game at Camp Randall Stadium against Ohio State, the Badgers will be facing some very challenging opponents.
But based on how well the defense played against LSU and how Houston and the Wisconsin offense kept their composure and delivered when it counted, the Badgers have to be optimistic about their chances in key games down the road.