The 2016 season was supposed to be special for the LSU football team – a year where the Tigers overcame the skeletons they’ve had in the closet in recent years and challenged for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
And it still may be exactly that before the dust settles on the fall.
But chapter one in the 12-game journey proved to be about as ugly as can be for folks who support the purple and gold.
The Tigers played arguably one of their poorest games in the Les Miles Era on Saturday afternoon, falling 16-14 to Wisconsin before a jam-packed, pro-Badgers crowd in Lambeau Field.
LSU’s offense struggled mightily in the game, gaining just 257 yards and converting just 2-of-10 third down conversions.
The Tigers had a drive cooking into Wisconsin in the final minute, but quarterback Brandon Harris threw an interception to end LSU’s rally to seal the deal.
The loss is LSU’s first season-opening defeat in Les Miles’ tenure.
After the loss, Miles seemed stunned, offering little more than one-sentence answers and disappointment.
“Tremendously so,” Miles said when asked how tough the loss was on the team. “These guys had a brutal camp, they busted their tails and we were right in position to win it. It’s not what we wanted.”
LSU’s offense did little to help the cause in the proceedings.
The Tigers couldn’t move the ball consistently throughout the game, often struggling to block the feisty Badgers’ defenders at the line of scrimmage.
All-American halfback Leonard Fournette mustered 138 rushing yards on 23 carries, but they were quiet yards – an effort smothered by an anemic passing attack that lacked teeth.
Harris was 12-of-21 on the game for just 131 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Miles conceded Harris was imperfect, but added LSU’s supporting cast didn’t play well, either.
Harris was routinely flushed out of the pocket by blitzing Badgers – including on the final pass when the quarterback was in the grasp of the defense before escaping and firing the interception.
“This is more than a quarterback,” Miles said. “It’s a team issue.”
And even with all the issues LSU had, the Tigers somehow had a legit chance to win the game.
After a scoreless first quarter, Wisconsin struck first, banging home two-straight field goals to take a 6-0 lead into halftime – one which was set up by a fumble by Derrius Guice.
In the second half, it got worse, as the Badgers forced LSU to punt, then drove straight down the field for a touchdown – a five-yard scamper from halfback Corey Clement, which put the team up 13-0.
But then LSU battled back.
With the Tigers in desperate need of some plays, the defense struck gold – first on a pick-six from Tre’Davious White and then a fumble recovery which set up another score to put the Tigers on top 14-13 late in the third quarter.
But the Badgers never crumbled.
After each team traded punts for the next several possessions, the Badgers scored the final blow – an eight-play, 48-yard drive, which ended in a game-winning 47-yard field goal from kicker Rafael Gaglianone with 3:47 to go.
LSU had one last gasp at victory, and pushed the ball inside Wisconsin’s 40-yard-line on the final drive. But Harris’ interception closed the deal and sealed the Tigers’ fate.
On the final drive, Fournette left the game with an apparent leg injury. Miles said the back would be fine and isn’t expected to miss any time.
“I’m very proud of the way our team, not only the way they played, but the way they prepared and the way they went about everything,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I’m really happy for them. It was a heck of a game against a really good opponent.”
The Tigers will take the field next Saturday against Jacksonville State in Tiger Stadium.
Photo: DIG file