​LSU Tigers Mount Comeback, Then Hold-Off Badgers for Win

January 1, 2024

LSU Tigers Mount Comeback, Then Hold Off Badgers for Win

By Joey Johnston

It was first-and-forever - first-and-98, if you want the truth - but LSU quarterback Garrett Nussmeier never recognized the obstacles.

He only saw the opportunity.

"You do what you have to do to win the football game,'' Nussmeier said. "It doesn't matter if you start from 1, the 2 you just stick to the process play-by-play, move the chains, move the chains and put the ball in the end zone.

"You can't do it by yourself. And to go 98 yards with the game on the line, that means a lot to me. To be the leader of the offense, that matters more.''

It was Nussmeier, the season-long backup finally getting his opportunity with the absence of Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels, who engineered a clutch eight-play, 98-yard scoring drive. It gave the SEC's Tigers a riveting 35-31 victory against the Big Ten Conference's Wisconsin Badgers in Monday afternoon's ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.

Nussmeier, the game's Most Valuable Player, delivered the game-winner, a 4-yard pass to Brian Thomas Jr., with 3:08 remaining for LSU's only lead and his second touchdown of the game.

But it was LSU's defense, a much-maligned unit, that finally shut the door. When the Badgers drove to the LSU 19-yard line in the final minute, the Tigers closed it out with three straight sacks of Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai, shifting a dicey second-and-2 situation to a desperation fourth-and-25.

"It was now or never for us and we brought the pressure,'' LSU linebacker Whit Weeks said. "This was a really sweet way to go out with a bowl game like this. It doesn't make up for all of the disappointments (regular-season defeats), but it definitely sets up very well for 2024.''

The Tigers (10-3), who revolved around the remarkable play of Daniels, suffered an obvious blow when the player opted out of the bowl game to concentrate on his NFL draft prospects. But they didn't miss a beat with Nussmeier, who was 31-for-45 with 395 yards and three touchdowns in his first college start.

Daniels, wearing his No. 5 LSU jersey on the sideline, was Nussmeier's biggest cheerleader.

"I appreciate our relationship a lot,'' said Nussmeier, who hit passes of 37 (Kyren Lacy) and 43 yards (Chris Hilton Jr.) on the final drive. "It was like our roles were reversed. I'm used to giving him a high-five after he made a Heisman statement or something like that.

"This means a lot for my confidence. I take pride in being confident and always being ready. The way we performed today is huge - 35 points - going into the offseason. It was a wild ride, but I was ready.''

The entire game was a wild ride. There was a combined 773 passing yards, a record for the 38th-year bowl, and the total combined yardage fell just 2 short of 1,000.

The Badgers (7-6) got an equally brilliant performance from Mordecai (27-for-40, 378 yards, three touchdowns) as part of a season-high 506-yard effort. After going the entire season without a 100-yard receivers, the Badgers got two - Will Paulding (eight catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns) and Bryson Green (seven receptions for 105 yards and a score).

Wisconsin, a nine-point underdog, twice built a two-touchdown advantage, including a 28-14 lead on Jackson Acker's 33-yard run to cap the third quarter's opening drive.

LSU, though, was just getting started.

"Our team was down at the half (21-14) and you could tell it was one of the lowest points of the season,'' Tigers coach Brian Kelly said. "We had to take it as a learning moment with the adversity we were under and see if we could bounce back from this.

"This would be a great learning experience for a lot of our younger players, especially on the defensive side of the ball and a quarterback (Nussmeier) who has obviously taken over for a Heisman Trophy winner. There was a lot to prove in the second half.''

LSU proved it was worthy.

At the same time, so did Wisconsin.

"These were two teams who really wanted to win the football game,'' Kelly said. "There was no doubt about whether these guys wanted to be here or not. Both teams wanted to be here. Both teams wanted to win.''

And the Badgers, after being in control most of the way, watched the ReliaQuest Bowl trophy slip from its grasp.

"This hurts,'' said Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell, completing his first season with the Badgers, who played without leading rusher Braelon Allen (NFL draft opt-out). "I think we had every opportunity (to win). Our guys did everything they could to put us in position. They got us in position to finish and we couldn't do it.''

On Mordecai, Fickell spoke in halting tones and fought back tears.

"I don't think you can say enough about that kid,'' Fickell said. "He had a broken hand (and returned for the final three games). He couldn't clap for four weeks out there. There was never a hesitation whether he would play in this game or not.

"He left it all out there. That guy's a winner. For him to play the way he did, practice the way he did, lead the way he did, to help move our program forward he set an example of what can happen when you go all in.''

In some people's eyes, the biggest storyline coming in was probably the players who weren't in action (Daniels and Allen). But by game's end, after the entertaining back and forth show for one of the better bowls ever staged in Tampa, it was all about the effort shown by the Tigers and Badgers.

"This means so much for me personally,'' Tigers junior safety Major Burns said. "There was no way I was going to flake out on my guys. To play this last game on New Year's Day, it was such a blessing for me.''

"We're a team that has won 20 games over the last two years and we have a really good foundational base (to meet) the expectations of LSU football,'' Kelly said. "Year-in, year-out, we should be competing for championships. As we go into 2024, I feel like this program is stabilized and we're really ready to ascend as we move forward.''

It went from a first-and-forever situation to a ReliaQuest Bowl result that will be remembered for all time.