HOUSTON — You can say what you want about this LSU football program.
All the good. All the bad. All the head-scratching insanity.
A delay-of-game penalty on the second half-opening kickoff? That doesn’t happen in Pop Warner football.
This only happens with Les Miles football, baby.
Welcome to his world.
Welcome to his theater of the absurd.
Outplayed most of the night by Wisconsin here in Saturday’s season opener, LSU was down to a last flicker of hope trailing 24-7 midway through the third quarter.
Then a little cunning. A little cuteness. Some brilliant plays by a team that despite its kookiness is talented.
Almost always winning, too, this time by a 28-24 score.
This has been a decade of this craziness under Miles, from the very first game when LSU came back from the dead on a fourth-down, 39-yard touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell to Early Doucet at Arizona State.
That night, thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees were here in this city, no doubt glued to TV sets and radios, coming unglued by what their Tigers did out in the desert.
They gave the people hope.
The Tigers always give their people hope.
Saturday night, the Tigers fans in Houston, LSU’s biggest non-Louisiana alumni base, got to see the comeback first-hand.
It was quite a sight, almost worth waiting 31 years for since the last time the Tigers played here.
Wisconsin had to be absolutely dumbstruck.
Join the club, Badgers. The club of teams that were convinced that they had Miles and his Tigers cornered, outcoached, beaten. The same look all those smart villains had on “Columbo” all those years, unable to comprehend how this underwhelming man got the cuffs on them.
Substitute a high white hat for a rumpled trench coat and you’re still in theme.
The Badgers will head back north still certain they did virtually everything you want to do to control the game and ultimately win.
They rumbled for rushing yardage like Patton’s tanks charging through French hedgerow country. Their defense, paying little respect to an LSU passing game that had to subtract 3,000-yard passer Zach Mettenberger and 1,000-yard receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. from last year’s offensive equation, stacked something resembling a Galveston seawall against LSU’s running game and dared the Tigers to crack it.
For most of the night they couldn’t. All LSU had to show for its offensive efforts the entire first half was a fortunate 80-yard touchdown pass from Anthony Jennings to Travin “The Touchdown Maker” Dural. All things considered, it could have been worse for the Tigers than to be down 17-7 at halftime.
For most of the night, this was an offense in crisis. A doubled-over, head-on-your-knees, rocking-back-and-forth-while-moaning-to-yourself evening of despair.
It looked even worse to start the second half after that debacle of a delay of game penalty. Freshman kicker Cameron Gamble still drilled the kickoff halfway into the end zone for a touchback, but Wisconsin drove for a 2-yard Corey Clement touchdown run that seemingly put the Tigers on ice down 24-7.
But the defense finally found its traction after that, stuffing Wisconsin on three straight three-and-outs while the offense found a way.
A brilliant individual effort by redshirt freshman receiver John Diarse to score on third-and-21 from the Wisconsin 36 was just the start, pulling LSU within 24-21 after a two-point conversion.
The tides in Galveston Bay don’t change as abruptly as Big Mo changed sidelines Saturday night. After Diarse’s virtuoso performance, it seemed almost inevitable that LSU would finally claim the lead.
That the Tigers did when Kenny Hilliard, LSU’s steamroller version of Wisconsin star tailback Melvin Gordon, plowed through the line to score from 28 yards with 9:41 left.
In the end, in a battle of often-inept passing games, it was the Tigers who prevailed because they squeezed more big plays out of theirs. Wisconsin never completed a pass for more than 14 yards. Tanner McEvoy, the running quarterback who beat out the thrower Joel Stave for the starting job, was woefully short of the task when asked to rally the team.
Oh, how this game will be dissected on both sides in the days to come.
All the good.
All the bad.
LSU, with all its youthful but considerable talent, is a very unfinished product.
The good news for the Tigers is they will probably be a better team at season’s end than they are at the beginning.
But more entertaining, more improbable, more deliciously confounding?
That’s not even possible.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.