HOUSTON — After saying last week he would use two young quarterbacks in the season opener with Wisconsin, LSU coach Les Miles delivered on his word Saturday night.
Miles made the decision to start sophomore Anthony Jennings and brought true freshman Brandon Harris in off the bench late in the first half after what was by all accounts a close, competitive training camp duel for the No. 1 job.
It’s a good thing Miles didn’t get the urge to give Jennings, the hero of LSU’s electric 31-27 win against Arkansas in the 2013 regular-season finale, a quick hook.
Miles stuck with Jennings for seven series before bringing Harris in for a quick three-and-out as Wisconsin built a 10-point first-half lead, then showed a lot of confidence in Jennings after the Badgers shocked the Tigers with a quick touchdown to start the second half and push their lead to 24-7.
At that point, Jennings did what Miles obviously thought he could do.
He shook off a horrid first half to lead his team to a pair of field goals and two touchdowns and also completed a two-point conversion pass in a pulsating 28-24 victory over Wisconsin before 71,599 fans — most of them clad in purple and gold — in NRG Stadium.
Jennings was only 5 of 15 for 120 yards in the first half, but the second half was just the opposite and a thing of beauty as Tigers fans shook their heads in disbelief at the difference.
After the stirring comeback, Miles credited offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Jennings with sticking with the game plan — which included a lot more of the ground game to take some of the pressure off a quarterback making his second college start.
“I think Cam did a great job in managing situations for Anthony,” Miles said. “It got to a point in the game that we had to do the things that we do best. Cam did a quality job calling plays and managing a young quarterback.
“We showed some confidence (in him), and Anthony responded to that.”
About the only thing that went right for Jennings and the offense in the first half was an 80-yard touchdown pass on its third possession to wide receiver Travin Dural, who also caught the game-winner from Jennings in that Arkansas game.
Jennings rolled to his right and hit a streaking Dural, who slipped behind cornerback Sojourn Shelton and strong safety Lubern Figaro to make the catch and scamper to the end zone, trimming Wisconsin’s early 10-0 lead to three.
Other than that big throw, however, Jennings wasn’t in sync as he was only 4 of 14 for 40 yards in his other seven series in the first half.
Harris made his much-anticipated debut on the eighth possession. But, like Jennings, he didn’t have much of a chance on what turned out to be his only series of the game.
Entering the contest with 4:21 to play in the second quarter, he couldn’t get the offense going. The Tigers actually lost 9 yards on the possession when Harris was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down by blitzing linebacker Joe Schobert.
At the same time, the Tigers’ usually-productive running game didn’t help the young quarterbacks much as they managed a scant 16 yards — 11 of them by Kenny Hilliard — on 15 carries in the first two quarters.
But that was about to change dramatically in the second half, especially after Wisconsin extended its lead by driving 75 yards in six plays on its first series.
“We came out a little slow, but in the second half we showed what we are about,” Jennings said. “We all knew what we had in our locker room … we just had to play.
“I got more comfortable in the pocket with the defense they were running,” he said. “My teammates around me calmed me down, and we got into the groove of things.”
Jennings led LSU to two Colby Delahoussaye field goals to start the second half after Miles called for a fake punt on fourth-and-3 when the Tigers’ first possession looked like it would end after three plays.
Sufficiently inspired by Miles’ gamble on which linebacker Kendell Beckwith gained 4 yards to keep the drive going, Jennings connected with Dural for a 44-yard gain that set up a 30-yard field goal by Delahoussaye.
The next series was also huge as Jennings marched his team to a 47-yard field goal that trimmed the deficit to 24-13 with 2:11 to go in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was more of the same for Jennings and the Tigers after the defense dug in and helped out by forcing two punts and getting a turnover on an interception of Tanner McEvoy by safety Jalen Mills.
Jennings, who finished 9 of 21 for 239 yards and two scores, calmly completed a 27-yard pass to Dural before hitting wide receiver John Diarse, who broke three tackles en route to a 36-yard touchdown.
After a two-point conversion pass to wide receiver Trey Quinn, LSU was down just 24-21 with 12:08 to play in the final period.
The Tigers completed the stirring comeback following a diving interception by Mills with 11:04 left in the game.
All Jennings had to do on this drive was turn and hand the ball off to Hilliard, who ripped off runs of 17, 8 and 28 yards — the latter providing the touchdown that proved to be the winning score.
“We always stress the fourth quarter in our workouts and everything we do,” said Jennings, who was 4 of 6 for 119 yards with the touchdown to Diarse in the second half.
After the game, Jennings, who led the Tigers to 365 total yards in the game, was hesitant to say the job is his to keep.
“That’s up to the coaches to decide. … I just try to come in at practice and get better,” he said. “I expect to be exponentially better. Just getting this game under my belt and getting behind the offense around me.
“Things aren’t going to come easy, but you have to keep doing what you have been practicing the whole summer. Those things are going to come.”
“The quarterback (Jennings) played in a competitive game,” Miles said. “He showed a lot craftiness. I think we’ll only be better.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate .