After arguably having the line of the week leading up to LSU’s season opener against Wisconsin—saying if his players attempted a Lambeau Leap, they'd “end up with their thumb out to see if they can get a ride home"—head coach Les Miles might soon need to hitch a lift himself.
Only his could be out of Baton Rouge if LSU doesn’t have a remarkable turnaround. After barely escaping being fired last November, Miles’ status was more than back in question following Saturday’s lackluster 16-14 loss to unranked Wisconsin.
In short, No. 5 LSU’s trip north probably couldn’t have gone worse. Instead of re-establishing the program as a national power with a prominent win against a name opponent, the Tigers are left soul-searching, while Miles' many detractors are again sharpening their axes.
Quarterback Brandon Harris had a horrible game, looking like he hadn’t improved or might have even regressed from a year ago. Despite having all of his key playmakers back from 2015, the junior quarterback completed just 12 of 21 passes for 131 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions—including one on the final drive that ended all hope of a comeback.
LSU could not sustain a drive, the longest being seven plays, and only Harris knew where his final pass attempt was intended to go. The lone player in the vicinity was Wisconsin safety D'Cota Dixon, who made the easy game-clinching pick.
Harris’ longest completion to a wide receiver was just 15 yards, and LSU didn’t convert a third-down opportunity until the last play of the third quarter. Part of that was due to predictable play-calling and the struggling offensive line. Meanwhile, Wisconsin was content playing small-ball and controlling the clock.
Consequently, the Badgers had nearly a three-to-one edge in total yards during the first half (180-64). Star running back Leonard Fournette wasn’t much of a factor, and despite finishing with 176 total yards, his Heisman Trophy chances likely took a huge hit.
Eighty of his yards came on three plays, one being a 31-yard pass that he was able to run under.
The secondary kept the Tigers in the game despite the offense's struggles.
Thanks to safety Rickey Jefferson’s interception in the end zone, Wisconsin only led 6-0 at halftime. He got it off quarterback Bart Houston, who, yes, was named after former Green Bay Packers and Alabama quarterback Bart Starr. Houston completed 19 of 31 passes for 205 yards.
“You couldn’t have made a better story, I guess,” Houston said on the ABC broadcast afterward.
Wisconsin’s only touchdown was simply the result of wanting it more.
Its short scoring drive consisted of a play-action pass to a tight end for a 28-yard gain followed by four straight runs up the middle. The first two went for first downs, and the fourth resulted in a five-yard score by running back Corey Clement. That's a huge red flag because LSU's defensive line was expected to be a real strength.
It helped put Wisconsin ahead 13-0, making it gut-check time for LSU, which did respond and take the lead.
Cornerback Tre'Davious White keyed the comeback bid with his 21-yard interception return finally getting LSU on the scoreboard. With Wisconsin's subsequent possession ending in another turnover—with Donte Jackson forcing a fumble that White recovered—LSU had the momentum. Travin Dural's 10-yard catch-and-run touchdown moments later helped give the Tigers the lead.
But that was it, and for LSU to have success this year, it's going to need a lot more than a top-notch secondary. Rafael Gaglianone’s 47-yard field goal held up and led to a very long trip home for LSU.
The Tigers have 18 starters returning and were thought to be a serious national championship contender.
Maybe they still will be, and with Jacksonville State, Mississippi State, Auburn and Missouri next up on the schedule, there’s time to turn things around. But this embarrassing loss is squarely on Miles.
His team wasn’t ready, and yes, with all that's been going on in Louisiana off the field, it's not surprising the Tigers haven't always had football on their minds. But the players looked like they had no clue about how people in Wisconsin consider Lambeau to be sacred ground.
Whereas hiring Dave Aranda away from Wisconsin to be the defensive coordinator was widely hailed as being a great move, little was done on the offensive side. Miles stuck with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and conventional wisdom was that Harris would find a way to improve.
He didn’t, at least not in the first game.
Miles even had the entire coaching staff on the Lambeau sideline to be more hands-on with the players. It, like everything else for the Tigers, appeared to fail spectacularly.
Fournette limped off the field on the final drive. Harris was beside himself on the bench. Offensive lineman Josh Boutte was ejected for a flagrant foul following Dixon's interception return with 57 seconds remaining.
When time finally ran out, some of the Wisconsin players jumped into the stands, doing the celebration that some LSU players had seemingly taken for granted that they would get to do.
Instead, LSU got what it deserved, and the speculation can begin on whether Miles will survive the season. There's still a lot of football left to play, but LSU just heaped a massive amount of pressure on itself to not repeat the disappointments of past years.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.