LSU has now won 12 consecutive season openers. The last loss was in Blacksburg to start the 2002 campaign. That’s not remarkable for some teams, but LSU hasn’t shied away from opening-game competition, although of course there were a few cupcakes as well: (home team listed second if applicable; 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014 have all been neutral sites)
2003- ULM 7, LSU 49
2004- Oregon St. 21, LSU 22
2005- LSU 35, Arizona St. 31
2006- ULL 3, LSU 45
2007- LSU 45, Mississippi St. 0
2008- Appalachian St. 13, LSU 41
2009- LSU 31, Washington 23
2010- LSU 30, North Carolina 24
2011- LSU 40, Oregon 27
2012- North Texas 14, LSU 41
2013- LSU 37, TCU 27
2014- LSU 28, Wisconsin 24
I thought SEC teams didn’t travel to PAC-10/12 teams, hmm. LSU is expected to go to back to Arizona St. some time, but the date keeps getting pushed back. Right now, it’s slated for 2022, but who knows? The Tigers are now actually supposed to travel to UCLA before then.
I don’t know if I’m even ready to count on next season just yet. As of right now, it seems LSU will be hosting McNeese to open next season (they travel to Syracuse later next season for the only non-home non-conference game) and will then have a rematch with Wisconsin to open 2016, this time in Green Bay.
So Wisconsin may end LSU’s streaks after all. LSU also won its record 46th straight non conference regular-season game. I don’t want to count on it of course, but if there isn’t a non-conference loss this regular season or next, the streak would be 53 going into that 2016 opener in Green Bay. I mentioned more about that streak after the Tigers broke the record a couple years ago.
As I expected, LSU didn’t exactly have an easy time of things this year, but I was surprised by a couple of things.
I didn’t expect Wisconsin to get an early touchdown as a result of a defensive line mistake. Credit does go to the blockers and running backs for exploiting it of course, but I mean from the perspective of LSU. Also, there were some questionable defensive play calls. For instance, one play Wisconsin lined up with extra blockers to the left and no one filled the gaps. I guess they were really convinced the runner would go to the end. At least they didn’t get a first done one that drive though.
It will take some time to have four solid quarters where the play calling and execution syncs up better. That’s why I’m so relieved LSU got past this game and will have what should be some somewhat comfortable home games to iron out those issues.
On offense, I was happy with the backs and the blockers, but Jennings still has some maturing to do. He hasn’t learned that if you don’t have a throw and it’s third down with everyone expecting a pass, you can run, particularly with the match-up advantage the Tigers had against the Badger defensive line. It doesn’t have to be part of the play call. Also, if there are no good downfield options and you’re outside the tackles, throw the ball to a buddy or your favorite coach on the sidelines.
Otherwise, I wasn’t too terribly unhappy with anything except for the 19-yard punt. I’ll explain a little how the offensive strategy improved in the second half though.
I expected the final score to be more like 21-17, but that’s exactly what it would have been without the first touchdowns by either team. The first LSU touchdown was for 80 yards against the Wisconsin corner who started for the first time, so it was less surprising than the one LSU gave up. It reminded me of the Jennings touchdown throw that beat Arkansas last year (and that was before I realized it was the same receiver). He’s a reliable technical passer when he has time and is looking in the right place.
The easy narrative is Wisconsin went up 24-7, then LSU shut them down going forward; but I think there was a clear beginning, middle and end. LSU messed up a couple times, and those mistakes were the key to Wisconsin’s 10-0 early lead.
Then it was a more even game. There was an exchange of touchdowns before the half and the Wisconsin touchdown was the only score in about a 23-minute stretch of the game. It so happened the following score was by Wisconsin, but that was answered by two field goals in the next 10 minutes. So in the 35 minutes between Wisconsin going up 10-0 and the start of the fourth quarter, Wisconsin only won that segment, 14-13. Then LSU took care of business in the fourth quarter, 15-0.
The defensive dominance did start midway through the third quarter though. The Badgers’ last five drives were for a total of 42 yards. That includes a 23-yard drive after LSU took the lead, but that one took 8 plays. That’s less than three yards per play.
LSU, on the other hand, couldn’t maintain a drive early on. The Tigers got first downs (including the 80-yard touchdown) in five drives of their nine in the first half but never a second (except for the one that resulted from a penalty immediately following an offensive first down).
The fake punt was a turning point but not just some type of psychological boost. Apart from the first drive, the singular first downs in the first half had come from passing on the first play of the possession. The fake punt was the fourth running play in a row, which opened up the passing game. So Wisconsin didn’t think the sky was falling because something went well for LSU, but they were starting to expect a run, and Jennings was allowed room to manœuver.
While passing didn’t open up the running much, the reverse seems to have happened. LSU kept up this strategy in the second half and until they started to run out the clock, they kept tending to run, but they also started passing better when there was less pressure to do so. Thankfully, the necessary adjustments were made early enough. Otherwise, it might have been too late to start trying to commit to a running game.
I always wonder when I see a quarterback go 9-for-20-something and a running back average six yards per carry why there weren’t a lot more runs by that person. I guess they wanted to give Jennings a chance to show what he could do, but at least get the lead first. LSU exploited the one member of the secondary they needed to exploit on the 80-yard play but didn’t do nearly enough to exploit the questionable front 7 of Wisconsin until the second half.
I don’t fault the coaches as much for giving other running backs a chance. Wisconsin was smart to give Reggie Love a chance on that first touchdown, for instance, although one could argue they maybe should have tried giving it to him again. The rest of the running-back carries were almost evenly split among two other players. Love got no further carries.
Most of you need no explanation on this point, but it also does wonders for your defense when you run the ball. If you get first downs, it often takes two or three plays. So even if it’s an unsuccessful drive, you might have ten plays for two first downs, whereas an unsuccessful passing possession with two first downs could be just six plays. Also, running plays typically take longer to develop. This allows opposing defenses to be worn down while allowing your own defense a breather.
Jennings was only 5/13 in the first half, so 4/8 in the second was an improvement. 8/16 for the game would have meant one fewer completion against 5 fewer incompletions, i.e., opportunities for making or contributing to first downs. LSU ended up with 11.2 yards per pass, but apart from the 80-yard pass, there were just over 3 yards per pass in the first half.
Also, LSU won time of possession in the second half by almost eight minutes. That stat doesn’t always mean much, but it does when both offense’s strong suits are their running backs and lines. Wisconsin had an even worse time of things trying to throw the ball, averaging only 2.1 yards per pass the entire game.