GREEN BAY, Wis. — LSU defensive end Lewis Neal is focused on the Southeastern Conference championship.
That might be a long shot after this dud.
Wisconsin stunned LSU and its skidding offense Saturday afternoon, topping the fifth-ranked Tigers 16-14 at historic Lambeau Field and snapping a pair of lengthy streaks.
Coach Paul Chryst’s unranked Badgers sent the Tigers to their first season-opening loss since 2002, and LSU coach Les Miles suffered his first defeat in a nonconference regular-season game at LSU. The coach had won all 42 of them in his 11 previous seasons with the Tigers.
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone’s 47-yard field goal lifted the Big Ten's Badgers, who entered as 11-point underdogs, to the victory. It sailed through the uprights with 3 minutes, 47 seconds left.
“We’ve got to keep focus on the SEC and win the rest of the games,” said Neal, a senior. “(If) we come out and win the rest of the games and win the SEC, we still have the opportunity to play in the national championship.”
LSU’s offense sputtered one final time on the last drive.
With his team down two points, quarterback Brandon Harris marched the Tigers to the Wisconsin 30-yard line before, under heavy pressure, he threw an interception to Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon. The game-securing pick ended with an ugly post-play hit from LSU's Josh Boutte: The 340-pound lineman lifted a forearm into the facemask of Dixon, knocking him to the ground.
Boutte, a senior, was ejected and could miss the Tigers' next game, Saturday against Jacksonville State in Tiger Stadium. The SEC office will review the play, said Herb Vincent, an SEC administrator at the game. Miles said Boutte told him he thought Dixon was returning the interception, unaware that the player's knee had touched the ground.
All of this happened in front of 77,823 at the Lambeau Field College Classic, a Big Ten-SEC showdown that unfolded at a stadium normally reserved for NFL duels.
“It’s a hurting feeling right now,” LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “I know how hard we've worked. We knew what was at stake this season.”
LSU's offense — allegedly tweaked and changed over the offseason — limped in the first college game played at Lambeau in 31 years and the first ever major college clash. It had all the trimmings of an exciting season-opening matchup. ESPN's "College GameDay" broadcast live from outside of the 80,000-seat stadium, and the Tigers entered with their highest preseason ranking since 2012.
But the game was a dud.
Cam Cameron’s offense scored one touchdown against a defense that lost its coordinator, Dave Aranda, to LSU in January. The Tigers’ longest drive was 49 yards.
“It was shocking for everybody,” Neal said of the game in general, “but all we can do is move forward and stay positive. We can’t let one loss determine our season. It’s too early for that.”
LSU running back Leonard Fournette had 138 yards on 23 carries and was injured on the Tigers’ final drive, though he could have returned, Miles said. Harris finished 12-of-21 for 131 yards, and backup running back Derrius Guice lost a fumble. LSU receivers dropped a handful of passes, and the offensive line stumbled with three new starters.
“It seems to me that some guys were not necessarily blocked,” Miles said, referring to Wisconsin defenders.
“At times, we executed,” center Ethan Pocic said. “At the same time, there were spots where we weren't on the same page.”
The offense didn’t crack the 260-yard mark for the game and had just 64 yards in a sloppy first half. LSU slipped into a 13-0 hole in the third quarter, needing a spark from the defense just to get on the scoreboard.
White returned an interception for a touchdown in the third quarter to make it 13-7. The Tigers took a 14-13 lead after cornerback Donte Jackson forced a fumble that White recovered. Harris then hit Fournette for 31 yards before finding Travin Dural for a 10-yard scoring pass.
LSU’s scores came in a span of 1 minute, 7 seconds. The Tigers were shut out for the remaining 58:53.
After the game, Miles hinted at miscommunication offensively.
“There was some difficulty getting plays in that needs to be worked on,” he said. “It's more than a quarterback.”
The pair of third-quarter turnovers had more than 25,000 LSU fans roaring. The Badgers, though, stormed back downfield midway through the fourth quarter, picking up chunks of yards against their former defensive coordinator’s new charges.
Aranda’s defense allowed 339 yards — none more crucial than a 48-yard final march by Wisconsin, led by first-time starting quarterback Bart Houston. Aranda, Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator for the past three seasons, met with his current players after the game, speaking to several of them individually, Neal said.
“I’m pretty sure it was emotional for him,” he said.
Neal refused to blame an offense whose six first-half possessions ended in three punts, an interception, a turnover on downs and a lost fumble.
Pocic and White took questions from the stage with Miles during a postgame news conference. Neal was the only other player made available to speak with reporters.
“Got to execute in all phases. I don’t want to point any fingers,” Neal said. “Everybody has to do their job.”
The offense began 2016 in a funk, scoreless for the first 39 minutes and completely out of sync. It stumbled through the first two and a half quarters, misfiring in the passing game and stuffed in the running game. It leaned on a defense that forced a turnover in the end zone (a Rickey Jefferson interception) and stuffed a fourth-and-1.
Fournette, who battled a sprained ankle during preseason camp, ran for just 35 yards on 11 carries in the opening half. Miles said his star entered the game fully healthy.
Wisconsin ended LSU’s first half with a play epitomizing the Tigers’ struggles: Harris lofted a pass into double coverage, and Wisconsin's Derrick Tindal intercepted the junior. LSU held the ball for 8 minutes to Wisconsin’s 22 over the first two quarters, and the Tigers had just two first-quarter possessions; both ended in three-and-outs.
Harris’ first three passes, all intended for Malachi Dupre, fell incomplete — a theme throughout the game.
“We've got to get back to work,” Pocic said. “It's a process. No one said it was going to be easy.”