Somewhere John L. Smith is smiling, or more appropriately, smacking himself in the face.
If the former Michigan State coach happened to be watching No. 14 Wisconsin in its season-opening battle with No. 13 Louisiana State, he had to be wondering if he had gone back in time.
Save for the fact Wisconsin was wearing different colors, the Badgers did their best imitation of an early 2000s Michigan State team, dominating a top-level opponent for the majority of the game before wrapping the game up with a bow and handing it away in the end.
The formula the Spartans nearly perfected under Smith was on full display in Houston as the Badgers rolled to a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter. Running back Melvin Gordon had just raced down the field on a 63-yard touchdown run and the Tigers looked like a beaten team.
But that’s when Les Miles started coaching like Les Miles, calling a crucial fake punt that seemed to give the Tigers life, and the Wisconsin offense came to a screeching halt. Gordon carried just three more times in the second half and quarterback Tanner McEvoy, in his first start, threw for just 50 yards.
The result was a 28-24 victory for LSU, another devastating loss on the national stage for the Badgers, who also lost a pair of defensive linemen to injury.
“They’re hurting right now,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said on the radio after the game. “We’re all hurting right now. I know Badger Nation is hurting right now. It was a tremendous opportunity. But we need to grow from it.”
Aside from the fact concerns over the passing game will likely be heightened for the Badgers, it won’t send them into some sort of season-long tailspin.
The broader issue is that Wisconsin was on the verge of giving the Big Ten, the conference desperately seeking some national respect, a huge non-conference victory. And it would have come against the Southeastern Conference, no less, the best conference in the nation for at least a decade.
Instead, the narrative will continue about the Big Ten, which didn’t exactly dominate during the first weekend, collecting close wins over Navy, Northern Iowa, Western Michigan and Youngstown State.
And it will be accentuated for the Badgers, a team that thinks it can win the West Division of the Big Ten but could fall far short if it can’t find a consistent balance on offense.
“Pretty much since I’ve been here, we’ve been coming up short in big games,” Gordon said. “Obviously, people will say ‘Wisconsin can’t win a big game.’ I’m pretty sure we’ll be hearing that all year.”
And we’ll pretty much be hearing about the Big Ten failing to measure up.
The conference will get another shot next week as No. 8 Michigan State travels to No. 3 Oregon, No. 5 Ohio State faces Virginia Tech and Michigan heads to No. 17 Notre Dame.
Wins there will put Wisconsin’s collapse well in the rearview mirror, but come up short again, and the Big Ten will have cemented itself as the one conference of the Power Five that could most likely be left out of the four-team playoff.
It wasn’t all bad for the Big Ten in the opening week. There were one-sided victories over lesser competition from the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, Maryland and Nebraska and a solid victory from Minnesota.
But the highlights came from Rutgers and Penn State.
The Scarlet Knights had to travel across the country for their opener against Washington State and found themselves trailing, 38-34, in the fourth quarter and being forced to punt. But Jonathan Aiken forced a fumble on the return that was recovered by Anthony Cioffi, setting up the winning touchdown run from Paul James, who piled up 173 yards.
Rutgers put the game away with Kemoko Turay’s sack of Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday and secured its first victory as a member of the Big Ten.
“The resiliency of this team really showed itself tonight,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said after Thursday’s victory. “This has been a team that has been extremely close this entire offseason. It wasn’t pretty, but we got one more stop than they did.”
The Nittany Lions own the award for most thrilling victory, and needed to go across the Atlantic Ocean to do it. Sam Ficken kicked a 36-yard field goal, his fourth of the game, as time expired to give Penn State a 26-24 win over Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland.
Christian Hackenberg led a seven-play drive to set up the winning kick and finished 32-for-47 for a school-record 454 yards. It gave coach James Franklin a win in his first game leading the Lions.
“There was only a minute or so left in the game, and I looked across the sideline and there wasn’t doubt in anybody’s eye,” Franklin said. “Everybody believed. They believed in Hack. They believed in Ficken.”
Ugly loss for Northwestern
Aside from the Wisconsin loss, only one other Big Ten team failed to win its opener — and it was an ugly one.
California came to Northwestern on Saturday as a double-digit point underdog after recording one win last season, and that was against an FCS team.
The Bears have that total matched after confounding the Wildcats, jumping to a 31-7 lead before holding on for the 31-24 upset.
Safety Traveon Henry might have summed up the feeling the Wildcats had when he described what he was thinking after allowing a 76-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
“I was praying a little bit,” Henry told the Chicago Tribune, “asking God ‘why’ and that sort of thing.”
It might not take a higher power, but for a team that completely collapsed down the stretch last season, a fast start would have been just what the football doctor ordered. Instead, a team that lost two key players in preseason camp — RB Venric Mark transferred and WR Christian Jones injured his knee — is searching for answers just one week into the season.
“I’m not gonna sit here and jump off Ryan Field’s tower,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’m sure I have plenty of critics. I wore white today; I’m sure people wanted me to wear purple. I’m over it.”
How the Big Ten fared
|Last week||This week|
|Indiana d. Indiana St. 28-10||Idle|
|Maryland d. James Madison 52-7||At USF, 3:30 Sat.|
|Michigan d. Appalachian St. 52-14||At Notre Dame, 7:30 Sat.|
|Michigan St. d. Jacksonville St. 45-7||At Oregon, 6:30 Sat.|
|Ohio State d. Navy 34-17||vs. Virginia Tech, 8 Sat.|
|Penn State d. UCF 26-24||vs. Akron, noon Sat.|
|Rutgers d. Washington St. 41-38||vs. Howard, noon Sat.|
|Last week||This week|
|Illinois d. Youngstown St. 28-17||vs. Western Kentucky, noon Sat.|
|Iowa d. Northern Iowa 31-23||vs. Ball State, 3:30 Sat.|
|Minnesota d. Eastern Illinois 42-20||vs. Middle Tennessee, 3:30 Sat.|
|Nebraska d. Florida Atlantic 55-7||vs. McNeese State, noon Sat.|
|Northwestern lost to Cal 31-24||vs. Northern Illinois, 3:30 Sat.|
|Purdue d. Western Michigan 43-34||vs. Central Michigan, noon Sat.|
|Wisconsin lost to LSU 28-24||vs. Western Illinois, noon Sat.|