A daunting schedule that includes five teams ranked in the top 15 of the coaches’ poll, the players were told it was a death march.
The unranked Badgers countered by saying they saw opportunities, not a path toward oblivion.
Opportunity number 1 of the 2016 season came Saturday at Lambeau Field and coach Paul Chryst’s players seized it on a national stage with a stunning 16-14 victory in front of a crowd of 77,823.
Give game balls to junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone, linebacker Vince Biegel and safety D’Cota Dixon, each of whom made huge plays in the final 3 minutes 47 seconds to help UW overcome a 14-13 deficit in the second half.
“It was a heck of a game against a really good opponent,” said Chryst, whose team blew a 13-0 lead in a span of 67 seconds in the third quarter. “And thought they just kept playing and maximized this opportunity. I wanted the kids to be able to enjoy this moment but also wanted them to maximize what happened on the field. The one thing is that there were a lot of questions thrown out about this team. We’ve only played one game, we didn’t answer them all, but the one thing I have been telling Justin (Wilcox) and Jimmy (Leonhard), two new coaches, I said: ‘The one thing you’ll like about this group of guys, they’ll be ready to play.’ I thought that guys were ready.”
Rafael Gaglianone, wearing number 27 this season to honor former Nebraska punter Sam Foltz, who died in a car accident in Waukesha County in July, nailed a 47-yard field goal to give the Badgers the lead with 3:47 left.
LSU took the ensuing kickoff and drove from its 25 to the Wisconsin 35, but on first and 15 the Tigers turned the ball over for the third and final time with an interception.
Biegel came through unblocked and nearly sacked quarterback Brandon Harris (12 of 21 for 131 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions).
Harris regained his balance and tried to hit wide receiver D.J. Chark, but the ball sailed directly into the arms of Dixon with 57 seconds left.
A personal foul on LSU lineman Josh Boutte put the ball at the Wisconsin 47. The Tigers, down to just one timeout, could do nothing but watch the Badgers run out the final seconds and head to the southwest corner of the stadium to engage in the Lambeau Leap.
“Yeah, Justin (Wilcox) radioed in my favorite blitz call,” Biegel said, referring to Wisconsin’s first-year defensive coordinator. “It’s called a ‘Psycho Track’ and I came inside the tackle and I was surprised I was unblocked. I actually thought it was a screen at first because I was unblocked so much, but give credit to (Harris). He’s a very shifty quarterback. He ended up escaping my grasp and made a pass that fell right into D’Cota’s lap. Give D’Cota the credit, he was exactly where he was supposed to be at the right time.”
LSU had just one timeout left, two fewer than they needed to get the ball back. LSU (0-1) saw their streak of consecutive regular-season, nonconference victories end at 52. The last loss before Saturday came against Virginia Tech – in the 2002 opener.
“We knew what was at stake this season,” said LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White, who returned an interception 21 yards for a touchdown to help pull LSU within 13-7 in the third quarter. “Our goal is to win it all and to go undefeated. It’s a hurtful feeling. The guys in the locker room are hurting so bad.”
Wisconsin overcame three turnovers, including two interceptions by Bart Houston (19 of 31 for 205 yards), largely because its defense under new coordinator Wilcox was magnificent.
LSU was held to 64 yards on 21 plays in the first half, which ended with the Badgers holding a 6-0 lead.
The Tigers stunned the Badgers with two touchdowns in a span of 1:07 in the third quarter to take a 14-13 lead.
Wisconsin, which blew a 24-7 lead in a 28-24 loss to LSU in 2014 in Houston, didn’t buckle this time.
Reserve linebacker Ryan Connelly, subbing for injured starter Chris Orr who left with a leg injury on the first play of the game, made a huge third-down stop on a screen pass to Leonard Fournette, forcing an LSU punt.
With his team trailing, 14-13, Bart Houston hit on all three of his passes for 48 yards on the game-winning drive.
Gaglianone, who hit from 30 and 48 yards earlier, was money on his final kick.
“It’s just wash the last play off, no matter how good or bad it was,” Houston said when asked about recovering from the interceptions. “It’s in the past. The only one that matters is the next one.”
Including the victory over LSU today, Wisconsin has won four of its last seven meetings against teams ranked in The Associated Press top five.
However, the previous three victories came against Big Ten teams. The last time Wisconsin defeated an AP top-five team in a nonconference game was in 1974, when the Badgers stunned #4 Nebraska, 21-20.
Corey Clement ran hard all game and finished with 86 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
The Badgers held Fournette to 35 yards on 11 carries in the first half. The Heisman hopeful finished with 138 yards on 23 carries but didn’t dominate the game and didn’t reach the end zone.
After the final seconds ticked off the clock, dozens of Badger players leaped into the stands to celebrate.
The scene was reminiscent of what transpired on February 11, 2006. On that day, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team defeated Ohio State, 4-2, at Lambeau Field. Wisconsin players leaped into the stands to celebrate the victory with their fans.
That team, coincidentally, went on to win a national title.
Whoa! Whoa! Chryst’s second Badger team isn’t considered a national title contender.
But on this day, September 3, 2016, the Badgers leaped over the Lambeau Field walls and into the national conversation.