Okay, so I'm a bit late on this, but between the holiday weekend and a new niece to visit in Memphis, Tenn., I just didn't have time to sit down and rewatch this game well enough to flesh out, or refute, some of my original thoughts.
Overall, this played out in a way very similar to what I thought before that game, in that it had the traditional first-game sloppiness, with LSU having some issues with Gordon and that Wisconsin running game. That isn't to say that things went well here by any stretch. But the important point is that LSU not only rallied in the second half, but really killed the Badger's will. Watch the fourth quarter again and you can really see Wisconsin's eyes get big as momentum turns LSU's way. And as B5Q pointed out, from the time Wisconsin took a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter, they ran all of six plays that gained yardage.
Upon further examination, some things aren't as bad as we initially thought, but make no mistake there's plenty to work on. The good news there is that with Sam Houston State and ULM coming the next two weeks, LSU has a chance to do just that before SEC play begins.
On to the notes.
- Woof were those first two Wisconsin drives rough on defense. LSU just looked like it wasn't ready for the game to start. Guys were moving at half-speed almost. Slow to react and even slower to get off their blocks. On the 45-yard run by Reggie Love, Kwon Alexander and Danielle Hunter were the main two culprits. Hunter was completely unblocked but was sucked in by the dive action, rather than looking to his containment responsibilities. Alexander tried to jump in the B-gap, and then was caught in the wash as Love raced by. Alexander almost certainly should have been aware that he needed to mind the C-gap with a man in motion coming at him. Once he and Hunter were out of the way, Wisconsin had a big alley with blockers in front for Love.
- The offensive line issues early on were more about consistency early on. Wisconsin wasn't so much blowing LSU off the ball so much as they were overwhelming with quickness and numbers. As Spielman pointed out a few times, Ethan Pocic was having some issues identifying assignments from the center spot early on, particularly at the second level. With zone blocking the center often times has to call the combos, or ID which defensive linemen are getting combo-blocked and which offensive lineman is coming off to get to the second level. A couple times, either the wrong man peeled off, or Wisconsin's linebackers ran some sort of stunt or twist. Marcus Trotter in particular. Wisconsin's pursuit closed a lot of holes quick, and they really didn't miss many tackles -- that's a big credit to them. Safety Michael Caputo in particular did a great job of closing down hill and cutting off runs at four yards or less. And as a result the first five third-down situations Anthony Jennings faced were all of five yards or longer. Six, before he completed the third-and-seven to John Diarse.
- Wisconsin's second scoring drive really was set up by Jamie Keehn's shank and the 22-yard scramble by McEvoy. Jermauria Rasco was able to get in the backfield but came at McEvoy too wide and too flat, and the 6-6 athlete had an easy step-up and scramble. From there, he shook Ronald Martin at the second level and just followed his blockers.
- As I said before, Jennings didn't start out in some ideal situations early on, but that's not to offer a blanket defense to his first-half play. He just looked jittery as hell early on. His screen-pass throws were just about all too much of one thing or another. Too high, too low, too hard, what have you. He also skipped a completeable curl-route to Travin Dural. But once he and Dural connected on that 80-yard bomb, things began to loosen up a bit.
- Said 80-yard bomb really was a textbook scramble play. Jennings dropped back off play-action, with all the options covered -- Wisconsin really jammed Connor Neighbors off a flat route - wisely broke contain and kept his eyes downfield. Dural ran a curl and then very wisely broke to the corner to get behind the coverage and give Jennings a better throwing lane. Jennings threw a perfect high, outside ball that either Dural would get to or fall incomplete. From there it was all speed.
- Dural in general looks the part of the No. 1 target and made major impact with all three of his catches -- obvious from the 151 yards. Jennings looked to him on a fade route in the red zone in the second half, but Wisconsin jammed him off the route. Jennings didn't look to him on a ton of underneath stuff, but that was likely due to a number of factors, including the third-and-long situations in which Wisconsin flooded the throwing (and running) lanes in coverage.
- The second-quarter drive ended by the fumble by Travis Dickson was such a momentum changer. LSU's defense had settled in and forced two straight punts, including a three-and-out. The opportunity was there to get something going on offense, and LSU really just went backwards. Vadal Alexander (who just looked like he was moving at half-speed for most of the first half) drew a false start -- although it's worth noting again that having a new center might have been a factor here. Jennings appears to make a nice scramble play to find Dickson in the flat and turn second-and-15 into third-and-medium, but the senior drops the ball on a relatively routine tackle.
- Funny thing, on the very first play of the ensuing drive, Rasco shows exactly how Hunter SHOULD have defended the jet sweep. Gordon comes across the formation, Rasco is unblocked and immediately squares to the jet action and makes the tackle.
- But on Gordon's 14-yard score, there's another assignment bust, by Kendell Beckwith and Ronald Martin. LSU's weakside end and tackle both slant hard inside, but Wisconsin called a zone run to that side getting the ball outside of the slants quick. Beckwith needs to slide over to man that gap, while Ronald Martin was blitzing from the outside with Kwon Alexander dropping over the slot receiver. Martin comes in too flat and is picked up by fullback Derek Watt and Beckwith gets stood up by a blocker long before he can slide over. Huge hole and Gordon's burst takes over.
- Speaking of tight end miscues, DeSean Smith's drop on first down on the drive after Gordon's TD. Textbook playaction pass, Smith proves too quick for the linebacker in coverage and breaks outside for what would have been a 20-yard gain or so. The throw from Jennings wasn't so dead on as to create much of a yards-after-catch opportunity, but it was definitely not a difficult catch. Smith just bricked it. Honestly, LSU should have probably come back to that play again and they almost certainly should in the future.
- Overall, there's been a lot of talk about the gameplan, and to be honest I think the bigger issues were execution-based. Communication issues with the offensive line. Jennings missing the mark on some passes, others that were dropped. What was very clear in the first half was that the inside running game wasn't going to work with the Badgers clogging things up inside. Spreading them out and attacking the edges can loosen that up, and you did see Cam Cameron begin to do more of that in the second half. I really liked the early emphasis on moving the pocket and creating easier passing situations for Jennnings.
- If I do have one particular gripe, it was that the use of Leonard Fournette seemed very deliberate. Him coming in almost seemed to signify "hey, ball's coming inside on this play," aside from the screen pass attempts and some option plays in the second half. If there's going to be that kind of effort to get him involved, using him on the edge might be more beneficial, particularly on a compacted defense like Wisconsin's in the first half. But in general, there just needs to be a flow to it. You could really see that the Badgers paid special attention when they saw No. 7, and there seemed to be a "we're not letting that guy make his name against us" when it came to tackling him. Lots of attitude and jawing.
- Speaking of freshmen, Brandon Harris' debut was pretty damn bad. Right out the gate you could see that when he made his first play-call, which, given that it was a reverse to Trey Quinn, shouldn't have been terribly complicated, the rest of the huddle had to hesitate and make him repeat it. From there, he made a poor choice on a zone-read, needed a timeout to get the next play off, and then was sacked on an overload blitz. Nerves are understandable for a kid that had never seen any time before, and honestly, as Jennings began to heat up in the second half there really wasn't a need to put him back out there. I really wouldn't let it change any plans on playing him versus the next two opponents.
- Speaking of freshmen, Trey Quinn got the start and played nearly every snap at receiver. He made once catch and nearly made another with a nice play on a deep ball in the second half, but a heads-up move by the corner broke up the ball. On a first-half incompletion he might have broken a little too deep on a post route when flattening out might have gotten him a little more separation, but Jennings could have put a little more air under the pass himself.
- As for Jennings, there's no two ways about it, his start was rough. Not as rough as many think -- again, if Smith makes that catch and Dickson avoids that fumble he at a minimum would have led one more productive drive. Plus, with the offensive line and running game struggling, he was pretty consistently in tough passing situations. In general, he just looked wound tight. Thing is though, he really loosened up in the second half.
- In the third quarter, Gordon's 63-yarder seemed to put Wisconsin further in the driver seat. Wisconsin ran their usual jet motion but just gave it to Gordon on an inside zone run. D.J. Welter flows with the step of the center, but not only gets blocked, but double-teamed. The main culprit was Alexander, who was caught up in traffic and out of position when Gordon cut back to the weakside and turned on the jets. Helluva hustle play by Jalen Collins to track him down.
- Speaking of Collins, he led a fantastic effort from the defensive backfield that really improved as the night went on, particularly in run defense. A big part of LSU's success was their ability to beat blocks on the edge and swallow up some of Wisconsin's perimeter plays.
- And while his mistakes led to some big plays, Alexander still had a very nice night with eight tackles and 2 tackles for loss. He made a number of really nice special teams plays as well. Honestly, he was indicative of LSU's run defense in general. Wisconsin might have rushed for 268 yards, but 142 of that came on four long runs by Gordon and Reggie Love. Factor those out and it's a more respectable 35 carries for 126 yards.
- Other bright spots for the defense? Five three-and-outs forced. While LSU never sacked McEvoy, the Mustang package seemed to consistently fluster and confuse him with pressure when the Tigers could deploy the look on third down. Overall, when LSU was able to slow the Badgers on first down, the offense stalled. Wisconsin only converted one third down of five yards or longer, and that was on an option pitch to Corey Clement.
- A bear-hug by a Wisconsin lineman on Quentin Thomas helped set up the Badger's final touchdown, allowing McEvoy to scramble from third-and-seven into fourth-and-one, which Andersen went for successfully.
- The offensive line cleaned up a lot of mistakes in the second half, but it wasn't totally done struggling -- Jerald Hawkins would get pulled for a series for Evan Washington. Hawkins did get back in eventually though.
- The fake punt -- love calling it to Beckwith, who was a high school quarterback. His vision as a runner was a big part of making the play work, making a cut to his right to a hole that Reid Ferguson had created with a cut block. Honestly, Wisconsin had the play relatively well defended, but LSU made enough blocks and Beckwith made the right move to pick up the yardage.
- For all of Jennings' first-half struggles, he hit on 4/6 passes in the second half for 119 yards, including a couple of beauts: the 44-yarder to Dural, a high and outside rainbow that Dural could run to without breaking stride while still clearing the corner and safety; a third-and-seven rope to Diarse on a curl; and of course the big third-and-21 throw to Diarse. The two passes to Diarse were snapped off perfectly on time for him to catch and run. Yeah, some of the first-half overthrows were frustrating, but I also like that he was relatively careful with the ball. A lot of those passes were "if my guy can't get this nobody else will" type plays.
- What's more, he made some really nice option reads, including a fantastic read on Hilliard's 17-yarder on third-and-six on the long drive after LSU had taken the lead. Jennings rode the mesh point a little extra long to draw in the second level, while Dillon Gordon and La'el Collins created a nice big running lane.
- While Jennings' start, and the fact that this was still the opener, should definitely leave this competition open for a little while longer, he kept his composure and honestly, just kept playing within himself in the second half. You could see that he and the team had a sense of urgency while remaining calm. That's an invaluable quality in a quarterback that you really can't teach. Take for example, said third-and-21 in the fourth quarter. It would have been easy to try and force the ball downfield, but Jennings stuck with the open guy. Yeah, chances are that Diarse isn't going to always be able to turn a 9-yard curl route into a 35-yard touchdown often, but in that spot it was much more important to gain some yards and live to fight another day. Either you set up a manageable fourth-down situation that you can think about going for, or you get better field position for the punt.
- Speaking of Hilliard, couldn't be more pleased to see the big senior running like he did as a freshman. Hilliard's weight loss was really reflected in the burst he showed.
- I would be remiss if I didn't mention Diarse as well, who looked like a mini-Anquan Boldin running through Badger cornerbacks. He's definitely been the forgotten man in this receiving corps, so it will be interesting to see how he contributes this year. He was a good matchup versus Wisconsin, as both of their corners were in the 185-pound range, giving up a solid 25-30 pounds to the redshirt freshman from Monroe.
- In closing, I'd like to make special note of the job Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman did calling this game. McDonough's always been a favorite of mine, understated and professional with a voice that hits the right notes at exciting moments. And Spielman's clinical without being too jargon, and does a great job of playing the jock role without beating you over the head with it.