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Three quick takeaways from the Badgers 35-31 loss to LSU

The Badgers faltered late in a tough finish to the 2023 season.

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Wisconsin at Louisiana State Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers suffered a tough 35-31 loss against the LSU Tigers in the ReliaQuest Bowl to cap off their 2023 season with a 7-6 record.

It was an incredibly strong start for the Badgers, as they held a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but they ultimately couldn’t hang on as the game went along in the losing effort.

The Badgers did cover the vast 9.5-point spread in an impressive performance in many aspects, but fell short in the fourth quarter, capping off Year 1 of the Luke Fickell era with a loss.

Here are three quick takeaways from the Badgers 35-31 loss against the LSU Tigers.

Tanner Mordecai’s finish

You couldn’t have asked for more from Tanner Mordecai in his final collegiate game, as the Badgers quarterback threw for 378 yards and three touchdowns, while completing 67.5 percent of his passes in his best game of the season.

Mordecai was the primary reason that the Badgers were in the game, as the sixth-year senior started off the game firing, starting the game off with major completions to Will Pauling and Bryson Green on a five-play, 78-yard touchdown drive.

Two drives later, Mordecai found Pauling for a 53-yard score, providing the Badgers an early 14-0.

Mordecai was aggressive and smart with the football, pushing the ball to all of his weapons and moving the Badgers inside LSU territory several times, where they posed a threat offensively to score.

Even when LSU crept back, Mordecai was able to respond for the most part, keeping the Badgers ahead until the end of the fourth quarter, which is why Wisconsin trailed for only 3:10 of the whole game.

Mordecai did struggle at the end of the team’s final drive, taking an untimely second-down sack before fumbling twice on third and fourth downs to seal the game.

But, the team should’ve never been in that position in the first place, and Mordecai was incredible everywhere else in the best performance from a Badgers quarterback all year long.

Coaching decisions

All season long, one area that has been up for debate has been the punting and field goal decisions of head coach Luke Fickell, who has consistently opted to go with the conservative route.

That issue arose again on Monday, and coaching decisions ultimately cost Wisconsin the game in this one.

Wisconsin saw itself having several offensive possessions where they could’ve done damage, but ultimately came short, and that started with their second drive of the game, where the Badgers were dealt with a 3rd & 2 at their own 47-yard line.

Once again, the Badgers failed to convert a short-distance situation, and then took a timeout before punting near midfield on 4th & 1.

Two drives later, Wisconsin moved deep into LSU territory, facing a 3rd & 4 at the LSU 33-yard line where the analytics suggested to go for it, which made sense given the success the Badgers had on the drive.

Fickell elected for a field goal instead and Nathanial Vakos badly missed on a 51-yard try, leaving the Badgers empty on the possession.

On their final drive of the half, there seemed to be some disconnect, as the Badgers were faced with a 2nd & 1 at the LSU 36 and couldn’t convert on three straight opportunities, leaving them scoreless once again in opponent territory, leaving their halftime lead at 21-14.

The second half, however, was where the disconnect seemed really apparent.

On Wisconsin’s third drive, an explosive play between Tanner Mordecai and Bryson Green led the Badgers to the LSU 1-yard line. Electing to pass on first down, Tanner Mordecai lost five yards while getting sacked instead of throwing it away.

Then, Wisconsin, surprisingly, ran twice out of the shotgun on 2nd and 3rd down, rather than go with the hot passing game, and kicked a 21-yard field goal on 4th & Goal from the LSU 3.

On the following drive, Wisconsin was moving once again, and faced a 3rd & 4 at their 45-yard line, where they elected to run the football. The run seemed to signal that Wisconsin was looking to go for it on 4th & short, but the Badgers punted on 4th & 2 after some discussion.

As the game was coming to a close in the fourth quarter, it seemed that offensive coordinator Phil Longo was looking to shorten the distance on later downs with the idea of going for it on fourth downs, but the Badgers punted or kicked a field goal, taking away that opportunity.

Regardless of where the disconnect is, Wisconsin needs to significantly improve on these decisions in 2024, as the choice to be less aggressive cost the Badgers points on several occasions throughout the season.

Against a much tougher schedule in 2024, that won’t work.

Wide receivers

While Tanner Mordecai did his part, I was intrigued with how the wide receivers performed on Monday against LSU.

Will Pauling continued his dominance against a shaky LSU defense, catching eight passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in a monster game.

But, Bryson Green showed out with seven catches for 105 yards and a touchdown, making several big plays, which was why he was recruited to Wisconsin.

Green was a player I had high hopes for in 2023, and expect to play in a feature role in 2024 in his second year at Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s No. 3 receiver? Trech Kekahuna, who caught four passes for 64 yards.

Kekahuna was active early in the game, seeing action on four-receiver sets, but the Badgers went away from those plays for a portion of the second half for some reason.

Then, Kekahuna had another major catch when inserted back into the game in the fourth quarter on a 24-yard play.

The Badgers should utilize multi-slot receiver sets in 2024, and Kekahuna and Pauling could be one of the better duos next year out of the slot.