Wisconsin and LSU gave fans a star-studded treat for Week 1 of the 2014 NCAA football season. These two preseason Top 25 squads decided to forego a tune-up game against an FCS school and take each other to task from the get-go. It made for an entertaining back-and-forth game, with the Tigers pulling out a fantastic 28-24 come-from-behind victory.
This game was supposed to be the first chapter in LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette's legendary SEC story, but this contest may in fact be a footnote for the highly touted recruit. He finished with just 18 yards on eight carries.
Wisconsin sophomore running back Reggie Love kicked off the scoring with a 45-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Badger Football noted the unlikely hero had quite the career average after that play:
Reggie Love now averaging 45.0 yards per carry for his career #Badgers— Badger Football (@BadgerFootball) August 31, 2014
Love briefly upstaged featured Badger back Melvin Gordon, but his moment in the spotlight was short-lived as the latter back got to work carving up the Tigers defense for big gains.
LSU got their own highlight play toward the end of the first quarter. Quarterback Anthony Jennings found wide receiver Travin Dural streaking down the sideline for a spectacular 80-yard touchdown, a play highlighted by Bleacher Report's Twitter account:
Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune liked how Jennings bounced back from his early struggles:
Anthony Jennings looked understandably shaky early but that 80-yard bomb to Dural was a beauty. Perfectly placed.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) August 31, 2014
Fournette struggled to gain traction throughout the game, but it wasn't just him. LSU struggled as a whole to gain any momentum on the ground in the first half. This fan noted toward the end of the game that the Tigers were missing a big talent in the backfield:
Jeremy Hill was the most important player on LSU's offense last year & arguably the best RB in the Nation. Hilliard's good, but big loss— Austin Nale (@UNCarolinaNuggs) August 31, 2014
ESPN's Bomani Jones expected to see more from Fournette in his first game as a Tiger:
first time we saw adrian peterson, we knew exactly what time it is. fournette may turn out very well, but i don’t see THAT guy.— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) August 31, 2014
Wisconsin was forced to rely on defense and the rushing attack with quarterback Tanner McEvoy struggling to move the ball through the air. He certainly ran the ball well, carrying the pigskin six times for 40 yards. Unfortunately, he completed just eight of 24 passes for 50 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
As Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times noted, he didn't meet the Saturday-night standards:
Tanner McEvoy is not ready for prime time.— Steve Greenberg (@SLGreenberg) August 31, 2014
Despite his struggles, the Badgers remained in control of the game and went into the locker room at halftime with a 17-7 lead.
They continued to pound the ball with Gordon in the third quarter. The junior back repaid his team's faith, punching the ball into the end zone to cap off a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive early in the third quarter.
Bucky's 5th Quarter noted the Badger backs have quite the touchdown celebration in store for this season:
The Tigers did well to refocus after that demoralizing drive. They strung together two nine-play drives that ended in Colby Delahoussaye field goals to cut the Badgers lead to 11.
McEvoy and Wisconsin struggled to move the ball efficiently, allowing LSU to maintain its momentum. Jennings finally put the Tigers within striking distance early in the fourth quarter, completing a 35-yard pass to John Diarse for the critical touchdown.
McEvoy then made a critical error early in the fourth quarter, throwing a costly interception that gave the Tigers excellent field position.
The Tigers eventually found their workhorse back in the form of Kenny Hilliard. He gave the Tigers their first lead of the game with a gut-busting 28-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. ESPN SEC noted just how well Hilliard carried the rock on that drive:
On that LSU drive, Hilliard run for 17, Hilliard run for 8, Hilliard run for 28 and a TD. Dominant drive for the Tigers. First of the night.— ESPN SEC (@ESPN_SEC) August 31, 2014
Hilliard finished the game with 18 carries for 110 yards and one touchdown.
Observers were perplexed as to why Gordon didn't see more of the ball down the stretch. Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel thought he was clearly what the Badgers needed:
If he's healthy, why the heck isn't Melvin Gordon in the game? And getting the ball more? He's 15-142. Clement is 14-42.— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) August 31, 2014
Gordon finished the game with just three carries in the second half, a perplexing development considering how dynamic he looked in the first half. As SportsCenter noted prior to the contest, Gordon gave up a chance at the NFL to return to the Badgers this season:
Melvin Gordon passed on a chance to enter the NFL to return to Wisconsin. Now, he says it's his time to shine. » http://t.co/0KN4P5YeOs— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 31, 2014
LSU will be happy to pull out the victory, despite not getting the expected production from Fournette. Hilliard can continue to carry the load in the early going, but the Tigers will need to find ways to work in their young back who has so much potential.
The Badgers clearly have a potent rushing attack, but head coach Gary Andersen will face questions about the team's balance on offense and the disappearance of Gordon's touches.
Wisconsin should still be a Top 20 team and showed that it has a strong enough defense to carry it through tougher contests, but McEvoy remains a work in progress and could struggle to deliver high-profile victories in the future.