GREEN BAY, Wis. — The odds seemed to be against the Wisconsin Badgers heading into Saturday’s matchup against the No. 5 LSU Tigers in the Lambeau Field College Classic.
UW faced not just its former defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, and his aggressive 3-4 scheme loaded with blue-chip recruits, but also Heisman Trophy candidate running back Leonard Fournette.
To make matters worse, Wisconsin lost one of its starting inside linebackers on LSU’s first offensive play of the game when Chris Orr injured his right leg and did not return.
It all could have opened the flood gates for a huge day for LSU. But it didn’t.
Wisconsin, carrying over last year’s defensive success under Aranda but now guided by Justin Wilcox, stifled the LSU offense. Led by linebackers Vince Biegel and Jack Cichy, the Badgers allowed only 257 total yards and forced three turnovers in their 16-14 victory.
“It was a heck of a challenge today,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “And if you just focus on Fournette, who is a heck of a running back, I think you can leave yourself exposed to other things, and I thought our guys played their assignments.
“When the ball declared, we got more than one hat to it, and I thought it was a good start to this year. I thought not just Justin, but Justin’s defensive coaches, he had them prepared. I thought all the coaches had guys ready to go, and the kids got themselves ready. That gives you a chance.”
It’s not to say the 6’1, 225-pound Fournette didn’t make an impact, as the junior rushed 23 times for 138 yards. Despite LSU’s star averaging exactly six yards per carry, Wisconsin contained him enough to where Fournette had just one large, breakout run—a 30-yard gain in the third quarter.
Most importantly, the Badgers didn’t allow him to see the end zone.
“I think Justin [Wilcox] put a great defensive game plan in,” Biegel said. “And it was for us just continue to go out there and executing kind of what we did in the spring and what we did in the fall camp and continue to build upon what we did.
“You know, we’ve got a lot of guys returning on our defense and we’ve got guys who played in a lot of ballgames. We’re confident in what we can do and I’m very confident in our inside backers, our D-line, our safeties. I’m excited about what the future holds for this defense and this Wisconsin Badger football team.”
The statistics show a squad that limited LSU to 2-of-10 on third-down conversions, that allowed just 131 passing yards and held quarterback Brandon Harris to 12-of-21 throwing on the day. Harris could not get into a rhythm needed to fully utilize star wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural to their greatest capacity.
Credit in stalling the potent Tigers has to be given to Wisconsin’s front seven winning the battle against LSU’s offensive line. Cichy led the team with eight tackles on the afternoon, with outside linebacker T.J. Watt registering seven.
Without Orr, former walk-on Ryan Connelly became the next man in while T.J. Edwards remained out with a foot injury suffered before fall camp. The redshirt sophomore from Eden Prairie, Minn., didn’t miss a beat. Once again, another walk-on stepped in when needed, flying around the ball and recording seven tackles.
“For me, Chris is a close friend of mine and you never want to see a teammate, let alone a friend, go down, but give Ryan Connelly an extreme amount of credit for being prepared to be able to fill into a big-time role like that and go out there and execute,” said Biegel. “Ryan made plays all over the field. He made tackles, he made great pass coverage, pass blocks. That just gives credit to our coaching staff to prepare our starters but also prepare that second man in, because when their time is called, they’re ready to go.”
UW dominated LSU in the first half, out-gaining the Tigers 180-64. The Badgers didn’t allow a third-down conversion, and held the ball for almost 22 minutes in the first two quarters.
Wisconsin led 6-0, but could have put up more points if not for some critical errors. In the red zone, Bart Houston threw into triple coverage on a 3rd-and-9 and was intercepted by free safety Rickey Jefferson. Previously, left tackle Ryan Ramczyk committed a false start penalty, forcing the 3rd-and-9 from the LSU 10.
Making his first career start, Houston provided a legitimate threat in the passing game and, overall, played a solid game. He completed 19 of 31 passes for 205 yards, connecting with eight different receivers on the day. Tight end Troy Fumagalli hauled in seven catches for 100 yards in a breakthrough performance for the redshirt junior.
Houston, the Dublin, Calif., native did throw two interceptions in his starting debut for Wisconsin, the second a more egregious decision than the first. Backed up in Wisconsin’s own territory, Houston tried to connect with senior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright. The ball was misplaced, and senior cornerback Tre’Davious White cut in and intercepted the pass. Eluding Wisconsin players, he found his way into the end zone for a 21-yard pick six that made it a 13-7 game.
The Badgers could have lost Saturday’s game due to their untimely mistakes. With the offense driving the series immediately after Davis’ touchdown, Houston found wide receiver George Rushing for 11 yards before Donte Jackson forced a fumble that was recovered by White, an all-SEC cornerback.
Two plays and 41 yards later, Harris found Dural for a 10-yard touchdown pass to give LSU its first lead at 14-13 with over four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Facing its first deficit of the game, Wisconsin didn’t roll over for the top-five team in the nation.
“I was talking with the line, talking with the receivers and running backs and just keeping their heads up and don’t let them slack off or anything,” Houston said. “Just keeping confidence, that’s what I did with the offense.”
With eight minutes, 14 seconds left in the game, Wisconsin moved the chains on an eight-play, 48-yard drive. Houston completed all three passes for 38 yards, including two completions to Fumagalli of 20 and 11 yards. That set up Rafaeal Gaglianone, who connected on a field goal from 47 yards out to put Wisconsin ahead for good.
The junior placekicker shined under pressure, converting all three attempts against the Tigers.
“I think he was the unsung hero in this game, too,” Biegel said, who recorded four tackles on the day. “Our offense played well, our defense played well, our special teams played well, but give Rafael a lot of credit for making big-time kicks in big-time moments, and we’re going to need that the rest of the season from him.”
Wisconsin’s defense would have to step up once again to secure the win. Harris drove LSU down to UW’s 35-yard line with just over a minute left. Biegel said Wilcox called a blitz called “Psycho Track,” which allowed the outside linebacker to pressure Harris. The quarterback evaded him, but threw the ball into the hands of strong safety D’Cota Dixon for the game-sealing interception.
“We were in Cover 3 defense, basically, but my man ran out,” Dixon said. “I’m supposed to take the out but the sticks were long. We had great pressure, so I was kind of just feathering.
“It was a long throw, so if he had to make that throw, I got time to make that tackle, so I was just really playing it very patiently. I see back at the quarterback, and I think it was Vince and T.J. Watt.
“Next thing you know, the ball was coming my way, and I was like ‘Uh oh. Don’t drop it.’ I was just very grateful, very fortunate, very thankful. If it wasn’t for the pressure, I don’t think I would have gotten the interception—so I’m very grateful for our boys.”
Dixon was hit after the play by LSU offensive lineman Josh Boutte, which drew a personal foul and disqualification from the referees. After the unnecessary hit from their opponent, the Badgers were be able to run out the clock in three plays, securing one of their most memorable non-conference victories.
After the final kneeldown, players embraced and ran on to the field in celebration. Wisconsin had broken LSU’s non-conference win streak, at 52 games heading into Saturday. The Badgers then took the party back to the fans, as players got in their Lambeau Leaps on one side of the stadium where plenty of Wisconsin faithful had remained after the final whistle.
There's nothing like your first Lambeau Leap. #OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/k9ruKqmCLC— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) September 3, 2016
Here the #Badgers Lambeau Leap with more screaming fans in the background pic.twitter.com/HyGPtcdyeO— Scott Grodsky (@ScottGrodsky) September 3, 2016
As fans exited the game, cheering and shouting enveloped the historic venue. Badgers fans screamed, high-fived and hugged with friends, family and maybe some strangers.
“It was electric,” Biegel said. “It was everything I thought it would be and more. I grew up in Wisconsin. I went to Green Bay Packer games, I said that before. I’m used to the stadium being green and gold, and for it to be red and white was a special moment.”
“Give credit to our fans. We really needed them today to be electric, and they are as advertised. They were a great crowd today and we really rallied behind them, and it’s fun to play in front of them.”