GREEN BAY, Wis. — Confident thoughts ran through Lewis Neal’s mind.
He watched from the sideline as LSU’s offense, trailing by two points, marched down the field in earnest.
Quarterback Brandon Harris hit wide-open tight end DeSean Smith for 19 yards and then found Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre to move the Tigers near midfield. Running back Leonard Fournette busted through the center of the line for a 15-yard gain to the Wisconsin 30-yard line with a minute left.
“Basically,” said Neal, the Tigers’ senior defensive end, “we were thinking we were going to win at the end down there.”
What happened next? A sequence that summed up LSU’s 16-14, season-opening loss to Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon: a bumbling offense lost without production from its Heisman Trophy hopeful.
Will Clapp, a second-year starting lineman, jumped early for a false-start penalty. A Badgers blitzer then ran untouched between left tackle K.J. Malone and Clapp. Quarterback Brandon Harris, dodging that would-be sack, chucked a poor pass into the hands of a defender for a game-sealing interception.
All the while, Fournette was on the sideline resting an ankle he re-injured on that 15-yard carry.
So, now what?
“Brandon Harris is in trouble now,” said Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brian Griese, the play-by-play analyst for ABC's broadcast of Saturday's game at Lambeau Field.
“I wouldn’t be shocked,” Griese said after the game, “if we saw a little bit of (backup quarterback) Danny Etling as this season goes along.”
The ineptitude of LSU's offense — one so many thought would change — was a stunning development on college football's opening weekend. The promise of change in LSU’s passing game — not necessarily scheme as much as execution — and the optimism that yielded left many picking the Tigers as College Football Playoff contenders. They began the season fifth in the AP poll, their best preseason ranking in four years.
LSU’s “entire offseason” was spent discussing an improved Harris and a team hoping to relieve pressure on its quarterback and running back by using other weapons, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said on air Saturday night.
“Where does LSU go from here?” Herbstreit asked.
“It’s not going to be easy for Les Miles,” said Danny Kanell, a former Florida State quarterback who’s now an analyst for ESPN. “The boo birds are going to be out. They’re going to be calling for his head.”
The dark cloak draped over the LSU offense — which Miles has insisted, since a drama-filled November, would change — was lifted Saturday.
But a cloak was never needed.
“All of last year’s problems on offense are still apparent,” wrote SBNation.com’s Jason Kirk. “I swore things would be better; I picked LSU to make the playoff. Never listen to me.”
He wasn’t the only one projecting the Tigers to be better offensively, specifically in the passing game. Miles even made a commitment to his boss, athletic director Joe Alleva, to change his run-heavy system and improve the passing attack.
“Les has committed to me that he understands there has to be some changes made,” Alleva said in December.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Days before the Wisconsin game, Les Miles was asked whether he would forbi…
The offense reminded some, including Griese, of last season's three-game losing streak, a stretch in which LSU averaged 15 points as opponents focused on stopping Fournette.
It’s still early, though. LSU is one game through a 12-game schedule, but Saturday’s performance — against an unranked Big Ten program — doesn’t send an optimistic wave through a frustrated administration and fan base.
The Tigers' 257 yards of offense ranked 113th in the nation after Saturday, and the offense was shut out in three of the four quarters. LSU’s offense has been shut out in 10 of the past 20 quarters of regular-season games.
The offense couldn’t find consistency without production from its star Saturday, an ongoing problem that dates to 2014. Without Fournette, the Tigers offense was mostly nonexistent against the Badgers.
What will it be like against Alabama or Ole Miss? At Arkansas and at Florida?
“It was all stuff we’ve seen in practice,” center Ethan Pocic said of the miscues. “We just got to get back to it, come back out on Monday and keep working. We just got to execute — plain and simple.”
On Saturday, the Tigers were closer to balance than last season (29 runs to 24 pass calls), but they predominantly ran out of the I-formation. Fournette had more touches (26) than any other player, and the Tigers needed him in the passing game to set up their only touchdown. His 31-yard reception in the third quarter, on a wheel route, resulted in Harris’ touchdown to Dural, a quick pass down the line of scrimmage.
It was the highlight of a troubling performance from the junior quarterback and his receivers. He targeted Dupre nine times, completing just three of those passes, and Harris tossed two interceptions — one into double coverage to end the first half and that pick on LSU's final offensive play.
“Brandon’s making what appeared to me some close throws that should have been caught and made some balls that were overthrown some,” Miles said. “You can’t blame Malachi on all of them.”
When Fournette couldn’t find holes (just 35 yards in the first half) or when he was on the sideline, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s group struggled. Backup running back Derrius Guice fumbled one of his two carries.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The first game of what could be Leonard Fournette’s final season at LSU di…
Harris, again under heat, fumbled to end a critical third-quarter drive inside the Wisconsin 30-yard line. Fournette had run for 51 yards on four straight carries to open that series. He needed a breather after that stretch, and Guice picked up 3 yards on first down before Harris lost the ball on play action on second down.
Who recovered the fumble? Fournette.
“They’re going to have to come back to work and find a resiliency that says they can be a very, very talented team, very capable team, a contender,” Miles said of his squad. “With that in mind, they have to make use of Monday and Tuesday and this next week.”