GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was nearly another classic Les Miles escape, LSU driving to win a game it had no business winning.
The fifth-ranked Tigers came out flat Saturday, their offense stagnant and predictable. Wisconsin had overwhelmed them at the line of scrimmage, clearly the more physical team from the opening kickoff. Quarterback Brandon Harris was more maddening than masterful. If not for two Bart Houston interceptions, which essentially equaled a 10-point swing for LSU, Wisconsin would have been comfortably ahead in the closing minutes at Lambeau Field.
But there the Tigers were, down just two points, reaching the Wisconsin 30-yard line after a Leonard Fournette somersault. LSU had set up the perfect ending to a mostly nightmarish afternoon. And the hot-seat buzz around Miles would cool a few degrees.
What happened instead? False start. Interception. Late hit. Ejection. Dejection.
A 16-14 loss, LSU’s first in a season opener under Miles and its first in a nonleague regular-season game since 2002.
“It’s not what we wanted,” Miles said.
If you were making a list of LSU’s concerns entering its opener, your hand would be tired from all the check marks. The Tigers had a chance to win, but they didn’t deserve victory. Not after being outgained 119-7 in yards in the first quarter and failing to record a first down. Not after running half as many plays (21) as a similarly constructed Wisconsin offense (42) in the first half. Not after failing to show meaningful strides in the passing game despite an experienced quarterback in Harris and talented receivers such as Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre. Not after burning two timeouts in the third quarter because of what Miles called “a first-game communication issue.”
New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was supposed to provide an edge against Wisconsin, the team he helped coach the past three seasons. But for most of the day, Aranda’s old defense was better than his new one.
Fournette (138 rush yards) and cornerback Tre’Davious White (interception return for touchdown, fumble recovery) kept LSU close, but there were too many errors in too many areas for such a talented club.
“We knew what was at stake this season,” White said. “Our goal is to win it all and to go undefeated. It’s a hurtful feeling. The guys in the locker room are hurting so bad.”
LSU can still go on to an SEC title and the College Football Playoff. The Tigers can hope Saturday’s performance is akin to Stanford’s in the 2015 opener. Like LSU, Stanford visited Big Ten territory with a star running back (Christian McCaffrey) and came out flat, losing to unranked Northwestern. The Cardinal rebounded to win their league and contend for the playoff.
But assuming the switch goes on when the SEC spotlight returns is risky. Especially the way Saturday’s game ended.
The deciding play underscored the offensive line issues that had plagued LSU all day. Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel ran virtually untouched toward Harris, who skillfully evaded him, only to miss safety D’Cota Dixon, lurking in coverage. Dixon easily corralled Harris’ pass, then, as he began celebrating, absorbed the massive forearm of LSU’s Josh Boutte, a 6-foot-5, 346-pound guard. Officials ejected Boutte for a flagrant personal foul.
Miles will review the hit and so will the SEC, but the LSU coach defended Boutte, saying Boutte was still blocking and didn’t know the play had ended.
“Again, I’ll have to check this, but it’s very logical that he did not even know [Dixon] had gone down and was just running [with the ball],” Miles said.
He added of Boutte: “He’s not a malicious guy.”
Dixon didn’t see the hit coming, telling ESPN.com, “I was shocked a little bit, but it’s all right. I’ve been hit harder. I understand. It’s part of the game. He was frustrated, probably. I’d be frustrated, too.”
The frustration was obvious on the LSU sideline; at least 20 players walked directly to the tunnel when the clock expired.
“I don’t know how you keep them up,” Miles said of his players. “I think they are just going to have to come back to work and find a resiliency.”
Miles didn’t blame Harris, who finished 12-of-21 for 131 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, calling the offensive challenges “a team issue.” Harris wasn’t made available to reporters — LSU couldn’t wait to leave Lambeau — and neither was Fournette, who limped off the field after his final carry (Miles doesn’t think the injury is serious).
Other Tigers players said Wisconsin didn’t present anything they hadn’t seen in preparation. Defensive end Lewis Neal insisted the team was ready but simply executed poorly.
“We’ve got to keep that focus on the SEC and winning the rest of the games,” Neal said, “because if we win the rest of the games and win the SEC, we still have the opportunity to play in the national championship.”
Neal might be right. LSU’s season isn’t over. Maybe the Tigers become this year’s Stanford and make a playoff push.
Miles’ fate isn’t sealed, either. He has made great escapes before, both in games and, last November, with his job.
But the Tigers didn’t resemble a championship team Saturday. Not even close to one. If the repair job doesn’t begin now, their season will be over before it really gets started.