Down but never out, Tigers rally past Wisconsin 28-24 in season opener

HOUSTON — Call it a comeback.

It surely was.

No. 13 LSU stormed back from a 17-point third-quarter deficit, scoring 21 unanswered to beat No. 14 Wisconsin 28-24 on Saturday night in a mostly purple-and-gold filled NRG Stadium.

The Tigers opened the season with a win for the 12th straight year, and they extended a nation-leading, nonconference regular-season winning streak to 46 games.

They did it in the most spectacular, scintillating and heart-racing way.

They went from worst to first, from dead to ahead. They rose from the artificial turf at the Houston Texans’ home stadium, awoke a comatose crowd and outlasted a Big Ten squad that controlled the game for nearly three quarters.

“We’re a blue-collar team that’ll fight like hell,” LSU coach Les Miles said after accepting the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff trophy in a midfield ceremony. “It was a tale of two halves.”

Oh, wasn’t it.

Down 24-7 with eight minutes left in the third quarter, LSU rode running back Kenny Hilliard, tackle-breaking receiver John Diarse and an interception-crazed defense to a resounding victory over the Badgers.

The Tigers scored 21 points — two touchdowns, a two-point conversion and a pair of field goals — in exactly 13 minutes of game time.

Everyone, it seemed, had a hand in what was the second-largest comeback of the Miles era.

Hilliard ran for 93 yards in the fourth quarter and scored a touchdown, Diarse broke three tackles during a 36-yard touchdown catch and LSU’s defense came alive to stuff the Badgers and pick them off.

Wisconsin had 32 yards on 19 plays in its final five drives.

Jalen Mills, who started at safety, had a game-changing interception, and Ronald Martin’s late-game pick all but secured a victory.

It was a rally few saw coming.

The Badgers were beating up Miles’ crew early on, using a fierce rushing attack and smothering an LSU offense missing an identity.

The dagger seemed to come here: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon raced 63 yards on the first play of the second half, setting up a touchdown that put the Badgers up 24-7 with 12:24 left in the third quarter.

At that point, LSU had been out-gained on the ground 248-17. Miles’ team looked like a lost, inexperienced group that didn’t stand a chance at a rally, a beaten squad bludgeoned by a northern army of corn-fed bullies.

And then?

“The point was made that it’s time,” Miles said. “It’s time we stopped shooting ourselves in the foot. Can’t tell you the number of missed tackles, of missed assignments (early). And then we started playing better. We made the point that, frankly, this is the time.”

It was sparked — of all things — by a converted fake punt midway through the third quarter.

On a fourth-and-3 near midfield, backup middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith took a direct snap from Reid Ferguson and plunged toward the left side of the line for 5 yards.

“I think the momentum change at that point was significant,” Miles said. “I think our guys started felling it, and our opponent realized we’re not going anywhere.”

On the next play, starting quarterback Anthony Jennings — he played all but one series — hit receiver Travin Dural with a beautiful pass for a 44-yard gain to the Wisconsin 8-yard line. Colby Delahoussaye followed with a field goal, and he added another on the next series to pull the Tigers to 24-13 late in the third quarter.

LSU then used spectacular plays from a handful of stars: Hilliard, Diarse and Mills.

Diarse, a redshirt freshman, broke three tackles and marched into the end zone to roars, turning a 10-yard reception into a 36-yard touchdown to make it 24-19. A two-point conversion — Jennings to freshman Trey Quinn — pulled the Tigers within three.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron “called a great third-down play,” Diarse said.

“I saw the ball come all the way into my hands and I tucked it,” he said. “The next thing, I blinked and I was in the end zone. I was like ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know what just happened.’ After that, we just turned it up a notch.”

Mills’ play came next, a beautiful outstretched interception that he caught over his shoulder.

The Tigers then rode Hilliard against a Wisconsin defensive front that lost two starters by midway through the fourth quarter. Three straight runs is all it took. He had rushes of 17, 8 and 28 yards. He raced through a whopping hole and paraded into the end zone to a wild celebration, a 28-yard dash that silenced an estimated 15,000 Badgers fans and completed a wild comeback.

Call it a comeback.

“This is a team that’s building,” Miles said. “I think we saw some guys grow up tonight.”

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv. For more coverage of LSU football, read our Tiger Tracks blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/tigertracks