GREEN BAY, Wis. — The expression on Les Miles’ face said that someone had stolen his puppy, his season ruined before it was barely four hours old, months of work suddenly bereft of meaning and purpose.
“I don’t know how you keep (the players) up,” LSU’s coach said quietly in the bowels of Lambeau Field after Wisconsin topped his No. 5 Tigers, 16-14, in the season-opener for both programs. “I think they’re just going to have to come back to work and find a resiliency.”
The prevailing narrative is that LSU choked on the big stage up North, that they lost their mojo, and – in a staggeringly dumb clothesline of defenseless Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon by senior guard Josh Boutte at the end of the game – their cool.
Here’s another thought, though:
What if the Badgers are for real?
What if Others Receiving Votes 16, Sleeper Pick To Reach The College Football Playoff 14 said more about the scrappy little underdogs in red?
Remember them? The ones who, in their last two games against old-money USC and title hopefuls LSU, have collected five sacks, three interceptions and held a pair of blue bloods to 326 and 257 total yards, respectively?
The ones who gave up just 35 first-half yards Saturday to an NFL tailback in an NFL stadium, Leonard Fournette, and just 76 yards, combined, in quarters 1, 2 and 4?
The ones who lost a two-touchdown lead in a span of about 80 seconds in the third quarter, but never backed down, never blinked?
“I think,” Dixon said, “we can be as good as we want to be.”
Before we hand Kirk Ferentz more hardware — and another lifetime extension — perhaps the path to Indianapolis for the wide-open Big Ten West runs not through Iowa City, but Madison. Unlike the Hawkeyes, the Badgers drew no favors from the dance card. And unlike the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin opens league play with the best three programs going in visits to Michigan State (Sept. 24), Michigan (Oct. 1) and Ohio State (Oct. 15) – the latter of whom spent Week 1 trying to outscore each other against poor Hawaii and Bowling Green, respectively. (The Buckeyes ‘won’ in that regard, dropping 77 points on the Falcons.)
Conventional wisdom has pegged the Badgers as a tough-luck, better-than-the-scoreboard-says seven or eight-win bunch, a scrappy collective that will probably deserve better than the cards it ends up getting dealt, a victim of the scheduling computer.
But did you see outside linebacker Vince Biegel, mohawk flowing in the summer breeze, chasing LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, getting knocked down and then rising up and somehow chasing him down again?
Did you notice Jack Cichy, aka Captain “A” gap, again trying to raise Cain up the middle by jumping the snap? Did you catch reserve linebacker Ryan Connelly, pressed into duty by an injury to Chris Orr, isolated in space on an LSU screen play designed to counter Cichy’s inside blitzes? Did you notice Connelly wrap up and turn a potentially game-breaking swing pass into a minimal gain?
Do they look like they want our pity, let alone justify it?
What if they’re for real? What if they’re spectacular?
“We set the bar,” Dixon said. “And I think you play every team the same way. I don’t think because you go from LSU to Akron to Georgia State that you play down. We take it one week at a time, and every game, every week, we (try to) win it. That’s the goal. That’s the plan.”
Of course, plans can change. Just ask the guys in the other locker room.
“It was shocking, for everybody,” LSU defensive end Lewis Neal said. “But all we can do is move forward and stay positive so we can win the SEC. Because we can’t let one loss just determine our season. It’s too early.”
Far too early. And what’s true in Baton Rouge is true in Madison, too. Akron and Georgia State don’t move the needle, but if you take your foot off the gas, even a little, an Appalachian State moment is only a sleepwalk away.
Saturday only guarantees the Badgers momentum out of the chute; playing with house money comes later, earned hand after hand, week after week.
The Southern half of the Lambeau media contingent walked away grumbling that Miles is in over his head (again), and start the funeral pyre. But what if that’s only half the story? What if he ran into a buzzsaw?
“We think highly of ourselves,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “We think we can do great things this year. And we absolutely made a statement today. We came out here, we fought hard, and I think we got what we deserved.”
To the victors go the spoils. And this spoiler just might be a hell of a lot better than anybody originally thought.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler