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Wisconsin 16, LSU 14: Post-Game Review

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And I looked again...and it didn’t get any better.

LSU v Wisconsin Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Well there’s a lot that I could say about what happened on Saturday afternoon, and there’s a lot that I will say about it, because that’s what I do here. But overall, I think this Academy Award-nominated star of stage and screen encapsulates my feelings succinctly.

On to the rewatch…

  • Right out of the shoot, the biggest thing that jumps off the screen isn’t quarterback play, or play-calling, imagination any of that. It’s that Wisconsin was simply the more physical team and wanted this game more than LSU. That’s really the game right there. The Tigers got no consistent push on the line of scrimmage, the Badgers did. The Tigers missed tackles and gave up extra yardage on runs. The Badgers didn’t. Wisconsin players were constantly falling forward for extra yardage, and their defenders were making good, low tackles that took LSU’s legs out from under them and prevented them from falling forward.

  • One of the ESPNU talking heads from their wrap-up show noted that it looked like LSU just had a one-week offseason. He was mostly referring to the “same old problems from 2015” bit, but to me, this looked like a team that was just completely unprepared to play a game and looked fresh out of workouts without a single week of actual practice in March or August.

That’s probably the most disturbing thing of all of this.

We’ll get to the passing game and all of those issues, but first and foremost the biggest culprit behind the issues on LSU’s offense were the Tigers’ offensive line. Specifically, tackles K.J. Malone and Toby Weathersby. Wisconsin had constant success with backside defenders crashing down the line and making quick tackles on running plays. Likewise, my charting showed the same thing as The Advocate’s Ross Dellenger: that the Badgers were able to get pressure on eight of Brandon Harris’ 23 drop backs. More than one-third. Completely unacceptable.

  • From a play-calling perspective, it was the lack of an adjustment to try and hold the aforementioned back-side. These are players that are usually unblocked by designed, but with good ones you can’t just assume they won’t be able to make the play like that. There are so many ways to occupy them or put them in conflict, and LSU did very little. No real horizontal movement at all. None of the split-zone play I talked about in the game preview, very little bootleg action or QB read looks. Screen plays, anything that could have put those linebackers in some sort of run/pass conflict and held them from pinching down so quickly. I’d call it frustrating but I’d have to type that so many times it’d be redundant. Especially when it’s something Wisconsin had a lot of success with both receivers and tight ends.

Even just having Travin Dural faking a bubble screen here was enough to hold Biegel on the backside and allow Fournette to make a nice cut and pick up a first down here. Things like this should have been regular parts of the gameplan.

And of course, an actual screen like this allowed the offense to score its lone touchdown of the game, with some nice moves from Dural.

  • In the second half LSU did adjust slightly, but having receivers motion in tight to occupy said linebacker, and it worked for a few plays early in the second half, but eventually Wisconsin stopped honoring it. That’s the kind of play that begs for a playfake and a quick bootleg throw to the flat and probably picks up an easy couple of yards.

  • And of course, on to the quarterback. What’s funny is that if you would have told me Harris would complete 12-of-21 passes before the game, I probably take that line, assume it comes with a couple nice passes down field plus some third-down plays while the running game cooks. Not in the least. As much as we talked about the quick-passing game into the flat, the fact that Harris still struggles to throw a basic hitch accurately makes me wonder if that’s even an option.

And if that’s truly the case, Danny Etling needs to get some really strong consideration.

  • I suspect part of the reason LSU still runs so many play-action, deep drops with heavier protection is because Harris just seems to be more comfortable with that much room to step up and fire. On short drops, which mostly came out of the gun on Saturday, he still has a tendency to bail on the pocket instead of stepping up, and will run himself into even more pressure. Maybe that’s a chicken/egg deal given the offensive line, but it’s a problem.

LSU is packaging a 3- and 5-step protection here, meaning that if you read blitz/man coverage you look left for a quick slant/TE flat combo, if not, you look to the right for something that’s developing faster. Wisconsin did a good job of bluffing the inside backer up, so Harris thinks he’s going to have the slant, ignoring the one-on-one to his right.

Wisconsin interferes with Jeter’s release to the flat, so when Harris looks and the slant his covered, he moves to the flat but it’s not there. He tries to reset and improvise but it doesn’t work.

  • On to the interception that clinched things for Wisconsin. You know what’s disappointing? Up until that point, I kept thinking “this is something Harris can build on, even if it ends in a missed field goal.”

Wisconsin sends a well-timed nickel blitz. Malone spots it and tries to pick it up, but Will Clapp didn’t, and as a result Biegel shot in unimpeded to the QB. Harris does a nice job of evading, but on the throw…maybe he expected D.J. Chark to break in, but he should have just thought to throw it away and preserve the field goal. Either way, it’s a mistake that may very well haunt this program for some time.

  • But, if you could point to one play specifically that might have made a really big difference, it was the screen pass to Fournette on third-and-8 at the LSU 33. If Ethan Pocic gets a good block on Brian Connolly, Fournette gets a first down near midfield, and I suspect that would have been a real tough momentum swing for Wisconsin’s defense.

  • Speaking of No. 7, he just didn’t seem like his usual explosive self, and it makes you wonder if the ankle injury limited him somewhat before he re-aggravated it. I charted at least three runs that were one tackle away from a 10-plus-yard gain, and he went down. That’s not something any of us saw last season.

  • Random box-score notes: LSU actually out-gained Wisconsin on a per-play basis by a full half a yard —5.1 to 4.6. But when they run 73 plays to your 50, it doesn’t matter so much. The Tigers were a woeful 2-of-10 on third down, despite an average distance of 5.3, which is not ideal but not unmanageable. The Tigers were 0-for on short-yardage runs on third-down.

  • And then there’s special teams, which may actually be worse than the offense at this point. I have no idea why, with a strong-legged kicker like Cameron Gamble that we KNOW can boot the ball out of the endzone, LSU insists on trying the corner kick. I have even less of an idea why they would go back to it after kicking one out of bounds. Again. Meanwhile, as great a day as Tre’davious White had on defense, he very nearly cost this team points AGAIN with poor decision making on punt returns. At least the coverage teams never really had much of an opportunity to struggle. Other than that time that only nine players took the field on a punt return, of course.

  • Let’s not say that there wasn’t some good in this game. Dave Aranda’s defense, for the most part, held the rope pretty damn well here, given the offensive ineptitude. Davon Godchaux was a damn warrior. With his backup Frank Herron suspended, I would guess he had to play 55-60 of Wisconsin’s 73 snaps, and finished with 9 tackles. Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley were pretty solid at the inside linebacker spots, and seemed to get better as the game went on. Beckwith in particular made an NFL play tackling a Wisconsin receiver on a jet sweep that looked like it was about to break for a big play. And of course White made some very nice plays in coverage.

  • Travonte Valentine was impressive in spurts, but unsurprisingly, will need to continue to work on technique and conditioning.

  • That said, tackling was suspect, as illustrated by a big catch-and-run on a 5-yard out that helped set up one of Wisconsin’s field goals. The DBs also seemed to be having some footing issues.

  • Dural also played one of his more consistent, physical games. Yeah he only caught 5 passes for 50 yards, but he was consistent, and made a really nice move on his touchdown. He also blocked like a champ.

  • Speaking of wide receivers -- there needs to be a whole lot of come-to-Jesusin’ in the Football Ops building this week, but one individual player that needs to be asked some really hard questions is Malachi Dupre. He let at least three passes get out of his hands, including two on third down. None of them were easy catches, but they’re the type of plays you’re expected to make when you want to be considered a big-time wide receiver and they’re the type of contested catches you absolutely have to make in the NFL. At this point, if it’s a 50-50 ball, I don’t trust Dupre to bring it down. And if isn’t going to change LSU needs to give some of the other wideouts a chance to do better.

  • Let’s make one thing clear in all this as we focus on LSU. Wisconsin has one of the better offensive lines in the country, and probably one of the top 10 front sevens. There’s no shame in having some struggle against either, even if the Badgers face an uphill climb with a difficult schedule this season. But this was more than just a struggle, and that’s the problem. And what’s more, LSU will see a better front seven when they play you-know-who.

The hyperbole for this game isn’t unwarranted. Given the stakes, the opponent, the venue, the expectations for this team and the completely uninspired effort, it’s the most disappointing loss LSU has ever had under Les Miles. After winning the 2016 offseason with dynamite coaching hires, a big-time recruiting class and the return of the most starters he’s ever had, the beginning of Les Miles’ 12th season as the Tigers head coach has taken him right back to where the 11th season ended: with deep-seeded questions regarding the status and future of his football program.

There’s been a lot of talk about the season being “over,” and that’s different because well…literally…it has just begun. There are 11 more games to go. I don’t blame anybody who says they don’t have faith in things to get better. But anybody who says they know exactly how these next 12 weeks will go had better be prepared to A) show proof of foresight and B) give me a plane ticket to Vegas, because if you haven’t heard, I have a house to rebuild.

LSU players took to their various social media to say the right things about playing for each other, goals being there, etc… And they’re right. The Ohio State comparison from 2014 certainly comes to mind, ditto Alabama’s last two playoff runs following an opening loss in conference play. They have to believe that, because the truth is the fans will not have their back. They have to.

But belief won’t be enough. There has to be action behind it. Coaches, from the head man on down, and players, from the seniors on down, have to look at themselves, and each other, and ask hard questions about just how good they want to be and what they want to do to make it happen.

The problems that we saw on display last Saturday can’t be fixed in one week, or even two weeks. It starts with one step, and another and so on. Keep moving forward. I don’t know whether or not this team can do that. It’s going to take a long journey to find out over these next three months.

We’ll see if LSU is up to it.